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‘Flashing Lights’: The Rap Videos of Spike Jonze

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The video- or possibly first half of the video- for Kanye’s ‘Flashing Lights’ premiered last week and it’s a pretty brilliant three minutes. Summary will be spared because you can watch it above and it’s fairly clear what it’s about, because even though people toss around phrases like “avant-garde” and “next-level” to describe the video, it’s fairly straight-forward: a few long, elegant camera moves that culminate in a women presumably stabbing a tied-up-and-in-the-trunk Kanye with a shovel. Like everything on ‘Graduation’ it’s about how celebrity and sex appeal are fucked-up.

The model in the video, Rita G, is gaining an insane amount of press- which in and of itself, shows how “exploitation” of women for videos is way more complicated than old-fashioned feminists would have us believe- and is a kind of sprucing-up of the classic video chick. She has a thicker body, which is way more attractive than the classic rock image of the video chick or the sexless and super-safe “hot” but not too hot indie chick staple, but Kanye puts her in lingerie instead of underwear and gives her actual poise and confidence. The video girl now takes actual center-stage, no longer being only ass and titties but the thematic and emotional focus of the video too. It’s a kind of “revenge of the Gold-digger”, as Rita G’s modern mixed with vintage lingerie were first seen in Hype Williams’ video for ‘Gold Digger’, Kanye’s most explicitly negative song about women (and one of his biggest hits…surprise surprise).

Kanye putting himself at the center of a revenge fantasy for rap’s misogyny and exploitation is typically cloying and oh-so-contradictory of ‘Ye, but it works because the video is genuinely real and disturbing and never gives in or steps back from its intended concept. Dunno why this comes to mind, but think of this Toby Keith video, which too involves revenge on the opposite sex (and a shovel!). Way more disturbing and genuinely misogynist than anything Nelly’s ever done (note to everybody: Sliding a credit card between a girl’s ass cheeks is funny), Toby’s video shows him singing an angry song to a tied-up Ex as he walls her in the basement, brick by brick. In the final moments of the video, the joke switches and is on Tobes as he somehow accidentally walled-himself in! Hilarious. This video’s always annoyed me because it’s a video of genuine misogyny that covers its ass in its final moments with a twist that allows it to still get airtime. Fuck that- ‘Flashing Lights’ sticks with its gender-revenge reversal to the end and gives you a genuinely complex and fucked-up experience.

Kanye takes a genuine backseat to the video chick, and in a darkly comic way, absorbs rap’s misogynist sins. He doesn’t even show up until half-way through the video and when he does, he gets stabbed with a shovel. The model, on the other hand, is allowed to strut in slow-motion and totally take control. The moment where she tosses the zippo and turns is as bad-ass as all the mean-mugging done by rappers in other videos. I get the weird sense that this will all be played for laughs when there’s a second half of the video and go the way of Toby Keith, but as it stands now, this is how I’m reading it.

The comfortable and patient camera too, adds to a certain level of respect (or relative respect) to the entire thing and moves it further away from being any kind of “typical” music video. This avoidance of the typical is the root of Kanye’s brilliance as well as why his work so often falls short of being brilliant but here, it works because it’s fairly out-there and it thematically connects to the song’s sense of how fame can put you in some goofy and/or dangerous positions. Upon seeing the video, I was immediately reminded of a comment on my ‘Flashing Lights’ entry by commenter Miss Shai:

“Maybe I read too many gossip blogs (maybe? lololol) but from the moment I heard it I figured this track was about his last girlfriend Brooke, the one that ‘be running on myspace’. The chorus about her taking things too far would be a reference to her apparent affinity for fame, being photographed everywhere (whether Ye was around or not)and then discussing her relationship issues on the internet or to anyone who’ll listen. Anyway, thats my reason for assuming both verses are about the same girl. I also felt like his reference to the paparazzi was a frustration with being caught cheating by the paparazzi, like them catching him out to dinner with other women or in places where he told her he wasn’t, making them a believable target for his contempt. The ending of the verse is her discovery of the infidelity and the end of the relationship, the beginning of the next is the separated reminiscing.”

Yeah! Taken with Miss Shai’s reading of the song, it’s a very confessional video in the sense of delving deep into Kanye’s post-fame fears of the women he’s fucked, fucked-over or both.

The entire thing has the feeling of a dream (or nightmare). The song never really matches up with the video in any overt or kinetic way and the actions both make sense and seem inexplicable. Why does she park the car, walk twenty or so feet out, strip, burn her clothes, and then walk back to the car? It doesn’t matter because you feel it and that’s what dreams and nightmares are about; a feeling. And it’s a feeling that matches the song quite well. It’s both obvious symbolic and totally free of a simple interpretation. The burning of her clothes is a sort of classic ritualistic trope but here, what does it mean? She’s in a sense, reduced to “shoes and cars” when she removes her clothes and walks in heels back to the car…but Monique pointed out to me, that the car is sort of unidentifiable and has the dust of the dirt road all over it; most videos go to great lengths to keep cars and objects of wealth clean. This is the second video where Kanye has sort of used the car as a sort of after-thought. One of the best parts of the ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ video is the brief appearance of a Lamborghini, as if it’s stuck in there for a few moments to say “Look, I can get a Lambo but I’d rather give you this weird Madonna ‘Frozen’ type shit…”

It is interesting that Spike Jonze “co-directed” this video, for he’s a director that only occasionally makes rap videos but always breathes new life into the ones he does. It’s fun to see this video as the opposite of ‘Gold Digger’ because in a way, Spike Jonze is the anti-Hype Williams. Both guys are perhaps the most well-known music video directors of all-time and both have immediately identifiable styles, but while Hype’s style often signifies nothing, everything Jonze does is intended to serve the song or feeling of that song. The desert, car, and woman too, recall Williams’ ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ video. We’re again in the desert and it’s again this beautiful night, but Jonze cuts a great deal less and incorporates a grittier film stock, not the super-clean imagery of Williams. I never thought Williams and West fit because Kanye’s always something of a joker and Hype Williams is embarassingly sincere, even though his videos are like, Ma$e floating in Vegas-space in a shiny-ass jacket.

The ‘Flashing Lights’ video is a good excuse to look back at Jonze’s decidedly anti-Hype Williams rap videos:

-Beastie Boys ‘Sure Shot’

Spike Jonze has made better and more conceptually cohesive videos for the Beastie Boys than ‘Sure Shot’ and that’s why I’m highlighting it. It’s a conventional performance style video but finds way to be weird and kinda reverse hip-hop video conventions. Like Kanye, the Beasties are dudes who’ve constantly moved in and out of the world of rap and are defiantly “hip-hop” in the same way that they are defiantly “punk rock”: because they do whatever they want.

You get the classic rap video “beatdown” shot here, but it’s the Beasties and Hurricane and they are having fun and it’s like mid-day in California and not like, midnight in Queensbridge. If you listen to the commentary on the amazing Criterion DVD of their videos, they mention that those weird igloo-ish homes they are walking around are some kind of California version of housing for the homeless, so in one sense, they’re as surrounded by poverty as any of the other “real” rap videos that would have followed this on ‘The Box’. Don’t sleep on Ad-Rock’s Peace Frog shirt.

-The Pharcyde ‘Drop’

Another thing that’s great about Spike Jonze is the way he totally commits to super-complicated concepts and rarely shorts-cuts on them, which for this video as you probably know, meant shooting the whole thing backwards, including the Pharcyde memorizing their lyrics backwards and other impressive stuff. Again, a kind of variation on rap video cliches that doesn’t try to be some corrective , but just happens to be a stranger take on a conventional concept.

-Notorious B.I.G featuring 112 ‘Sky’s the Limit’

A video that puts Jonze’s sometimes annoying cleverness to good use. Quite a few videos or guest verses by Biggie after his death used old-footage of him, which had a way of being very affecting, but somehow, this video that recreates Biggie videos with children is fun as well as affecting. It’s the sort of video that if not out of necessity, a label probably wouldn’t have approved because it breaks Biggie’s mainstream “gangster” persona even though it highlights the playful and funny side of Biggie that real fans remember equally well. As usual, the idea is saved because Jonze keeps it as authentic as possible, doing his best to match the old videos.

-Fatlip ‘What’s Up Fatlip?’

A totally low-budget video that perfectly fits Fatlip’s depressive but hilarious single. Some of it invokes the aesthetic of ‘Jackass’ which Jonze had a part in…the kid kicking him in the nuts, the obviously-shot-without consent gags, the shaky cameras, and a general sense of on-the-fly fun. The part where he visits his Mom is really great.

On the Spike Jonze Director’s Series DVD that Palm Pictures put out, there’s a pretty lengthy documentary about Fatlip that’s really revealing and funny and adds another level to his insane persona.

-Ludacris ‘Get Back’

This video seems to be sort of forgotten because it came in a time where rap videos stopped being fun on like, any level. The concept of giving Ludacris Robert Altman’s ‘Popeye’ arms and a team of uniformed fat chicks is brilliant and fits Ludacris’ comedic take on aggression; a lesser director would’ve taken the song’s hard-ass message as serious.

The fact that the arms are these big rubber things is good as well becauses it avoids annoying CGI (see Luda’s stupid ‘Stand Up’ video…) and you can tell Luda’s having more fun because he really is inhabiting the dude with big arms character. Some of the best parts are these quick, obviously improvised shots of Ludacris just being goofy with the arms. The whole video is a celebration of easy, old-fashioned special effects…the wire effects when he punches people, Fatlip’s twisted legs, the exploding bricks of the wall, it’s just really fun. When it came out, it made me wish the Keenan Ivory Wayans would’ve just turned this into a movie…like a low-budget blaxploitation pic about this dude in the hood who fights pimps and drug-dealers because he was born with these big-ass arms.

Written by Brandon

February 18th, 2008 at 11:36 pm

One Response to '‘Flashing Lights’: The Rap Videos of Spike Jonze'

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  1. Madonna is one of the most amazing superstars in the world. I definitely wish she keeps on going.

    Corey Oliff

    17 Apr 10 at 10:40 pm

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