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Race & Gender Devolution in ‘Flashing Lights’ Version 2


Being a Kanye West fan–or as some see it, a Kanye West apologist– can be pretty maddening. Around the same time he drops the wonderfully weird and heartbreaking guest-verse on Jeezy’s ‘Put On’, he releases this simple-minded video that nearly negates the first video’s brilliance and says the same shit in a way more obvious way.

When those mad Jeezy synths slow-down into a depressed twinkle and Kanye turns Jeezy’s “I put on for my city” chant into a depressed monotone, stretched to a whiny whimper by auto-tune, it’s performance no doubt, but you feel it too. It’s not the “despite it all I’m still king shit” crying of T.I’s ‘No Matter What’ nor is it the typical “things are fucked-up” hip-hop every rapper drops every once in a while and great rappers like Scarface and Z-Ro have made a career of, it’s a crazy mess of honest anger and pathetic, reaching-out-to-fans because he needs someone to feel bad for him depression. There’s even less of the “even while I’m complaining about fame, I’m reminding you of my fame” stuff that’s all over ‘Graduation’, this at least sounds like he’s really about to crack or close to it- that smart self-awareness is still there. Remember, he tells you he feels like “bitches still owe [him] sex” not that they actually do, there’s a difference. One comes out of ‘Put On’ thinking that Kanye would probably be a lot happier if he was still giving Talib Kweli hot beats and trying to bite the drums off ‘Xxplosive’…

Kanye’s point since ‘Graduation’s been about how getting really famous is great and all but really fucked-up. ‘Late Registration’ was the album and the point in his career where he went all-out and ‘Graduation’s the aftermath, where he feels bad and weird about it all but also knows he can’t be another famous person bitching about being famous. So, he’s trying to find lots of new ways to address fame and sex and glamour and smuggle in some smarter, complicated messages too. The original ‘Flashing Lights’ video was both crystal-clear and avant-garde in its presentation of Kanye’s issues with fame, paranoia, women, and everything else–a perfect but non-literal companion to the song. At the same time, it was a kind of “Video Ho’s revenge” video, by putting the video chick at the center of the video, leaving her relatively un-objectified, and leaving Kanye to pay for the sins of every rapper who ever slid a credit card down the ass crack of a girl. The was the duality that early Kanye mixtape songs had– he was a rap nerd who wanted to be a superstar– and fueled something like ‘All Falls Down’; his self-criticism moved into social or cultural criticism and was easier to digest because it started with why he was a dick and spiraled out to everybody else. An easy trick but one that worked and felt sincere nonetheless.

The new ‘Flashing Lights’ video is an interesting parallel to the first video in that in this version, it’s the women who is attacked. Perhaps the video’s striving for some kind of we’re-all-fucked equality but it never gets there, it feels completely wrong and painfully obvious. The video’s essentially a series of stills or freeze-frames (some REM ‘Daysleeper’ video shit) of a thin, white model–Charlotte-Carter Allen– walking around her apartment, presumably after a night of partying, smoking cigarettes and eventually, trying on a bunch more clothes because that night, she’ll do it all again. That night however, on her way back to her super-nice apartment, she’s attacked and raped by a bunch of dudes hiding in an alley. Again, the dark side of partying and fashion and all that, but this time, with all of the subtlety or complexity removed.

The video’s got a very ‘American Apparel’ aesthetic which goes along with all the “hipster rap” talk and is a lot like Kanye’s music and recent videos. Those ‘AA’ ads riding the corners of blogs and the backs of your city’s free alternative weekly try to do the same mix of being really sexy and glamourous and also, hint towards the ugly, reality of fashion and fucking (the one where you can see the vague hairs on the female model’s ass would be a good example). Kanye’s new video fails though. In part, because the concept is just too simple. While indeed, women are raped by dark strangers in alley-ways, the reality of rape and sometimes even “rape” is that it’s some dude you know or were talking to and not some weird, third-party evil literally lurking in the shadows. There’s some stuff going on with the way the scene of violation is interrupted by black & white fashion-like stills of her pained expression in the same exact way that B & W fashion stills interrupted her smoking a cigarette or drinking, but it’s all negated because the violation, which is the conceit of the video, is separated from the rest of the video.

Even worse however, is the model Kanye chose for the video. Aesthetically, she’s boring. Like, ‘Victoria Secret’ model boring. Like, girl in ‘Maxim’ boring. But that’s not just an aesthetic issue, it doesn’t jibe with what the video is trying to do. We’re seeing this glamourpuss on her down-time, but she either looks or is afraid to look like she’s not posing in a Kanye West video. She smokes and she drinks and she looks a little mopey but it’s never felt. The video screams-out “the messed-up reality of the glamourous life!” instead of just portraying it. Contrast that with admittedly more-beautiful-than-you-or-I ‘American Apparel’ models that still, have something real or interesting about them. Maybe the ‘Flashing Lights’ version 2 girl is supposed to seem like this– the polar opposite of Rita G– and there’s some aspect of it all being this angry, sick, revenge on the conventionally beautiful– so conventional she’s not even attractive really– girl being attacked, but it feels more like it’s supposed to be all the more tragic and horrible because of the way she looks.

It’s real fun for white dudes like me to pretend to be “with-it” by calling-out rappers for falling-back on super-white models and even light-skinned girls or something, but that’s not what’s going on in version two of ‘Flashing Lights’. Kanye should not be criticized because he’s black and he’s chosen to adopt the most mainstream and conventional concept of beauty, but because his previous videos have done a great deal to either avoid this or at least, really joke-around with concepts of beauty. Think of Stacey Dash in ‘All Falls Down’, a girl most well-known for ‘Clueless’ almost a decade before, still looking beautiful but appropriately aged and still the adored center of the video, even as she represents the “single black female addicted to retail”:

Or think of the plurality of bodies celebrated in Kanye-directed clips for Common (‘Go’) and John Legend (‘Heaven’):

Going back a bit, remember that when Kanye finally got around to a video with out-and-out “video girls” (‘Kanye’s Workout Plan’), the whole thing was a little bit of a joke, but the biggest joke was on Anna-Nicole Smith, the ideal, big-breasted, white blonde reduced to absurdity. Between her cameo in this video and Kanye’s later use of her at an award show, there was a sense of Kanye exploiting the ideal white female or at least being like, “this is what you people think is attractive?!”. Anna-Nicole’s near-exploitation by Kanye also highlighted another aspect of the ‘Workout Plan’ video: all the other girls in the video are black. I saw it as subtle but effective nod to his political and “conscious” rap roots, without being super-obvious about it all. It was refreshing because as a big star on MTV, it was no longer expected that he think about or care about mainstream entertainments and its relationship to racial politics.
Then, when the ‘Touch the Sky’ video premiered, he seemingly took-on issues of “blackness” and “whiteness” and rejected them all by making-out with the other reduction of white ideal beauty to absurdity, Pamela Anderson. An interlude in the video has Nia Long and the girl whose name I forget from ‘Girlfriends’ freaking-out because he’s making-out with a white girl. It was a political act to cast black girls in his early videos and now it was an equally political act to be like, “I see what you guys mean about selling-out or whatever you want to call it, but it’s just as stupid to not sell-out in a way, you know? Like, categorical thinking of any kind is fucked-up…”
So, given those previous complexities afforded to race and gender, the second version of ‘Flashing Lights’ feels disappointing because it’s so conventional in every way. From the beat-you-over-the-head obviousness of the video’s concept to the video girl herself, it feels lost and muddled, trying to do a whole lot at once– it’s toothlessly edgy, plainly sexy, dully artistic– and as a result, not doing anything at all.

Written by Brandon

May 27th, 2008 at 9:14 pm

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  1. [...] further reading/viewing: -“Power,” Paintings, Pomposity: The Uncertain Evolution of Kanye West’s Music Videos” by Sean Fennessey for Sound Of The City -“Subvertising” on Wikipedia -Buy Marco Brambilla’s Demolition Man -“Race & Gender Devolution in ‘Flashing Lights’ Version 2″ by ME [...]

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