[9 min read + 11 min media]
2016 has been an overwhelming great year for music videos. Lots of visual albums, DIY delicacies, sumptuous big-budget productions, mesmerising lyric videos, bold NSFW provocations, interactive oddities and inventive apps. To prove it, the web is already flooded by irresistible best-of-the-year lists that pinpoint how the medium kept being creative throughout the year. Though we also love lists (they tend to be fun to read and eye-opening), we decided for now to focus on two of our favourite music videos of 2016. There’s lots of dancing and construction involved, things are about to get dirty.
In the turn of the millennium, China began to build almost real-scale imitations of western cities. The construction of Tianducheng began in 2007 and is perhaps the most eloquent example of the government plan to recreate great cities around the world throughout Mainland China as an artificial way to further inflate the brutal growth if its economy. Its central features are a 108-metre-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower and 31 km2 of the Champs-Elysées surrounding style architecture, fountains and landscaping. Chances are that if you were to be teletported to Tianducheng, you’d believe to be in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. But due to its size, location, and poor planning, the town houses only a fraction of the population it was built for: 2,000 instead of the forecasted 10,000 habitants. Most of them work in the ghostly, decaying and eery French-themed amusement park.
Romain Gavras is the kind of music video director who likes to think big. In an age where DIY and vernacular aesthetic rules the digital media landscape, his attitude is both refreshingly reactionary and anachronic. It’s no wonder that he didn’t direct a single music video since Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild” (2012): his budgets tend to be huge with overwhelming logistics and skyrocketing production values. For the video of Jamie xx’s “Gosh”, shot precisely at the heart of Tianducheng, his team had, for instance, to find a way to, in 24 hours, bleach and darken again the hair of 400 pupils of a Shaolin martial arts school.
For centuries art made us dream of other possible worlds; nowadays, one of its most preeminent functions is probably to keep us grounded.
“Gosh” is a mesmerising music video take of Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story of a black teenager with albinism surrounded by the hyperreal setting of Tianducheng (no CGI or 3D effects were used). Judging how his eyes constantly scrutinise his surroundings, the quest seems to be finding a meaning in a world so filled with cultural appropriation and ersatz that it’s becoming almost impossible to discern reality from virtuality or genuineness from simulacrum. The epic choreography of the black-dressed multitude of Asian kids resembles a surreal Olympics opening ceremony thus adding further disorientation in an unfinished universe where nothing seems to be what it looks like.
The key to this numbing perception vortex, beautifully shot in sync with its slow-building breakbeat soundtrack, is arguably in its opening purple-tinged scene, where the protagonist is the only one in the room with no VR headsets: though his eyes are wide-open, one can only guess what will be the results of his psychological and moral growth. In a world so packed with hyperactive and virtual stimuli, Jamie xx’s music and Romain Gavras’ images are nothing but a ferocious critique of a species increasingly loosing touch with its peers and reality. Funny how for centuries art made us dream of other possible worlds; nowadays, one of its most preeminent functions is probably to keep us grounded.
Dirty Projectors might have sang it some years ago, but it took the two simultaneously released videos for Solange’s A Seat at The Table to make us fully realise how stillness can be a move. “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” were directed by Knowles and her husband, Alan Ferguson, with help from photographer Carlota Guerrero and cinematographer Arthur Jafa. The project took the whole production crew on a journey from her new home in New Orleans, through the deserts of her home state, Texas, and down to the sunbaked mountains of New Mexico. There are a lots of similarities between them: melody, scenario, characters, choreography, colour-palette and mood. A wardrobe that mixes clothes of emerging designers with DIY pieces created with the help of her mother, Tina Knowles-Lawson, not only makes fashion an integral part of the vibrant landscapes but also underlines the importance of colour in the meditative, soulful and political nature of her music.
The music video of “Cranes in the Sky” is particularly awe-inspiring. The lyrics of the song suggest that neither keeping busy nor reclusion are the best ways to deal with the problems that are looming over your head, because, guess what?, chances are they won’t go away of their own accord. Facing our demons head on and actively building a path to happiness are poetically expressed by the powerful metaphor of the song’s title. Rather surprisingly, no cranes are to be found in the video. There are houses, though. But not any kind of houses. One, in particular, is very strange and peculiar: it looks like a four-legged organism of rusty steel perched on a shabby ridge.
Never mind Martin Mull infamous quote: it’s not writing about music, but rather filming it that can be aptly compared to dancing about architecture.
The “Steel House” was the life project of sculptor Robert Bruno, who built it with virtually no assistance over the course of three decades, designing and modifying it as he went, frequently tearing out portions that no longer pleased him. It is located in Ramson Canyon, about 15 miles east of Lubbock. It was left uncompleted and has been unoccupied since 2008, when Bruno died aged 64. It’s no wonder that this part sculpture, part house structure was considered a suitable visual substitute for the cranes’ verbal metaphor. Not only are both made of steel and spread ideas of work-in-progress and unfinished business, as the former’s bold shapes, earthy colour and location fits the hazy aesthetic of the video.
American actor, comedian and musician Martin Mull once famously said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Judging by the way both “Gosh” and “Cranes in the Sky” music videos resourcefully use architecture and choreography as tools to convey their narratives and concepts, the infamous quote seems more apt to describe the fascinating challenges of filming music.