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Music Videos & Patience

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When I talked about Kanye West/Spike Jonze’s video for ‘Flashing Lights’, I was nearly as shocked by its patient and economic cutting as I was by its weirdly brutal ending. And about a year ago, I discussed the videos of Gil Green, who makes conventional videos that avoid super-high concept stuff and rapid-fire MTV editing and replace it with the more visceral excitement of hand-held cameras and a tight video narrative.

This continued movement away from the A.D.D editing that peaked in the late 90s/early 2000s isn’t exclusive to music videos, the overall trend has something to do with everyone getting over the insane freedom computerized editing systems gave them, and it probably has a lot to do with just how easy it is to rip off the lotsacrazycuts style, but it’s still an interesting shift, especially as ‘Idiocracy’-like rumblings only continue. Basically, smart directors now realize that the MTV style needs to be employed as another tool as it is in, say, Richie’s suicide in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’ or the beginning of the newest Kanye West video ‘Home Coming’, directed by Hype Williams.

The video uses the quick cuts in a way that works, to introduce the video in an exciting way that matches the song’s appearance on the album: as the previous track ‘The Glory’ comes to a halt, the cheesy-but-great Christopher Cross-type pianos of ‘Home Coming’ pound in for the song’s melancholy hook, the video’s beginning matches this feeling. Then, the cuts slow down, matching the song’s just a few notches above a ballad pace, but the amount of information delivered through the images is still overwhelming but one’s brain can actually process it. Kanye performs on a moving vehicle down a Chicago street, as the cuts bounce between touching ‘Let Us Now Praise Famous Men’-ish images of black Chicago residents, and notable landmarks and pretty-amazing architecture, occasionally punctuated by this weird gray reverse-silhouette of Coldplay’s Chris Martin for the hook.

It’s once again, typically Kanye West in that it wisely–and obnoxiously– avoids categorical thinking and so, the video’s full of shots of–for lack of a better word– “regular” people, which is a nod to the celebrate “the hood”/your hometown video of the 90s, mixed with an architecture fetish that reflects the flossin’ rap videos everyone’s more familiar with, but also updates it in a way by focusing on beautiful art and design and not money and crazy colors and cars. To me, there’s not a difference between the two (I never got why recent rappers like Jay-Z are praised for owning Basquiats instead of gold-encrusted faucets, conspicuous consumpton is conspicuous consumption, no?), but I think it’s what Kanye’s getting at and fits along with Kanye, Andre 3000, and other rappers’ slight contempt for “make it rain theatrics”.

A Simple Equation:

+ 1/4 of This:
Janet Jackson’s ‘Rock With U’ Video

I originally wanted to discuss this video when it came out about a month ago, but it’s one of the most interesting videos that’s been released in a long time, and on the topic of video director “patience”, it fits right in, being this impressive single-take, no cuts video.

The video’s a single-take through three different rooms and then back to the original room, with this like, crazy organic-feeling choreography. The dancing, the camera gliding all around, Janet Jackson and dancers falling into close-up or falling back from the camera, it’s like a single, living, breathing thing that sells this actually pretty weird song really well. Janet Jackson’s a talented dancer and performer and the video grabs onto that and pretty much one-ups any dance video made since the heyday of dance videos in the 90s. Most performers (Usher might be one of the only true exceptions) don’t really go all-out and actually dance or you know, use the dancing to signify or reflect something, but ‘Rock With U’ does.

One of the best aspects of the video– and one of the reasons it’s not very popular– is the way the choreography goes from this insanely organic thing to the dancers basically stopping to move into the next room, which of course, we see because there’s no cuts! It’s both glamorous and realistic at the same time. Dunno if this connection makes any sense to anybody else, but the video’s mechanic naturalism makes me think of something like Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ or other stuff by H.R Giger in its ability to feel both of this world, dirty and natural, and eerily cold and futuristic.

The song’s clearly an attempt to cash-in on the electro-rave R & B trend, but it’s sort of waaaayyy more genuine and of that genre than Timbaland’s updating rave signifiers for a pop audience. Janet’s voice is pretty processed and auto-tuned but it could be worse, and arrpeggiting synths flutter, 808s clap, chopped funk guitar riffs fall in and out mechanically, there’s this ‘Dont You Want Me Baby’ synths, and it’s got some like actually for-the-club bass and not modern R &B/hip-hops sense of what music in a club is supposed to sound like. I think it’s basically a song that’s way too real for the radio and the same could apply to the video as well; whether Janet Jackson knows that or not, I’m not sure.

Written by Brandon

April 4th, 2008 at 6:48 pm

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Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ Video.

Everything related to ‘Graduation’, the singles, the video for ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and now, the ‘Stronger’ video, give me a slightly ambivalent feeling. All of it is cool but none of it is amazing. I respect what these songs and videos sound or look like, but they don’t have me very excited. My initial response is a mixture of “that was cool” tinged with slight disappointment because it never really adds up to what Kanye hyped it as or what my little super-fan imagination turned it into. When you compare what Kanye is releasing to the crap that is on the radio or MTV, it stands out as impressive but on its own, it falls slightly short.

It’s hard to even begin to explain without sounding like a nit-picky asshole (but when have I been afraid of that?). The best place to start would be that, the video is essentially an ‘Akira’ homage. For those that don’t know, ‘Akira’ is in many ways, the definitive anime, the kind of anime that even people who aren’t interested or don’t care for anime should be able to enjoy. I think it basically ruins all other animes because almost anything you see after ‘Akira’ doesn’t really compare. Monique, upon seeing it recently, compared it to a bible story or something and I think that’s a really accurate comparison. It moves from being a story of a group of friends to being about all kinds of metaphysical shit without ever being bogged-down in pretension or exposition (the bane of most animes’ existence). But yeah, there are better places than here to read about ‘Akira’ if you don’t know about it and of course, you could just go out and rent it; it’s totally worth it.

The Kanye video is primarily a homage to a sequence in the movie where Tetsuo is subjected to a series of tests by the government, then locked in a hospital, and busts out, destroying an entire line of armed guards. The video contains numerous recreations of shots from the anime (see above) that are really effectively done. Kanye’s does some excellent physical acting, contorting his face just right, not too over-the-top, and his walk is as scary as it is when Tetsuo is doing it in the movie. Kanye’s apparent empathy with Tetsuo makes me think the sequence has some thematic resonance: Something about fame and being subjected to criticism (deserved and undeserved) and blasting back at it with full-force?

It all works conceptually, invoking ‘Akira’, particularly the character of Tetsuo is apt. Apt because it suggests Kanye’s mix of blind, righteous indignation and unblinking self-awareness. Tetsuo is the antagonist of ‘Akira’, slowly over-taken by his powers and the hubris newfound power entails, but he is also undeniably the main attraction, in part, because of his out-of-control-ness; he’s the most complex and engaging chracter. I think Kanye understands these kinds of contradictions in himself. We’re oddly annoyed and sympathetic with Tetsuo and likewise, with Kanye West.

Kanye’s music has always been fueled by opposition, but there’s a seething disdain and anger in ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and ‘Stronger’ that feels a little different than the mix of enthusiasm and arrogance on ‘Late Registration’. As he did on ‘College Dropout’, Kanye feels like he’s really got something to prove; it doesn’t seem like he’s going through the motions, which he basically was when ‘Late Registration’ was released. Kanye seems to be tapping into Tetsuo’s very rarified form of defiance.

Unfortunately the video itself, even in the scenes that mimic ‘Akira’, share little of the movie’s energy and anger. The video’s failure to be as engaging and impressive as it sounded like it was going to be, falls on Hype Williams’ shoulders. Hype Williams is a stylist not a kinetic, movement-oriented director. His video for ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ was clever in its parody of ‘De Beers’ diamonds commercials, that sort of too-clean, ultra-clear black and white and the ‘Gold Digger’ video was better than the song, but he seems to have the unfortunate habit of attempting to constantly create a new signature effect or stylistic flourish for every video. That effect used in the Ne-Yo video and the Robin Thicke video, wherein the images overlapped, essentially, putting images where the black-bars of normal widescreen would be, was too busy. The ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ video and the ‘Stronger’ video have this obnoxious technique where the footage kinda looks like security-cam footage for a few seconds and then stutters or freezes like a computer glitch and it just isn’t very interesting or clever. It makes sense in this futuristic video but it had no place in ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ and it highlights a certain copying-and-pasting of techniques that plagues most video directors. They just don’t seem to have much of a grasp of what actually fits or makes sense, just what looks really “cool”.

There’s also the frustrating fact that it still relies on the typical music video structure of inter-cutting two “stories” with performance footage. Even a video this strange and out-there is still anchored in convention. All of it looks amazing on its own but as a whole, it just doesn’t really gel, particularly the Kanye performance footage. The most alive part of the video are these quick hand-held shots of Japan that look like they were maybe even shot on-the-fly; they give the video an energy it lacks in most other places.

Hype Williams is an amazing stylist and I half-regret all the shit I’m talking here already, but ultimately, I don’t think Hype Williams and Kanye West really fit together. The raw feel of Chris Milk’s videos for Kanye (‘All Falls Down’, ‘Jesus Walks’, ‘Touch the Sky’) fit significantly better than Hype Williams’ smoothed-out direction. Kanye, despite his popularity, just isn’t a typical rap superstar, he’s too weird, too idiosyncratic, too daring. No matter how hard he tries or no matter who he hires, Kanye can never be bigger-than-life because his appeal is how honest he is about everything. Imagine a cheaper version of this video directed by Milk, or even Michel Gondry who directed the ‘Heard Em’ Say’ video. The biggest problem with the ‘Stronger’ video is that it isn’t very fun. Only a director as vapid as Hype Williams could make a futuristic rap video, in Japan, with the most ambitious rapper around, and end-up with something uninteresting.

Written by Brandon

June 27th, 2007 at 5:26 am