Why Kanye’s ‘Bound 2’ Video Could Have Been Great (And How Franco And Rogan Get It Right)

In the avalanche of criticism aimed at Kanye West’s ridiculous, obviously green-screened, naked Kim Kardashian-featuring, fake motorcycle-riding new video for “Bound 2,” is one common complaint that just keeps recurring: the video is too damn cheesy.

And, yes, it is. Yes, it’s the visual equivalent of a romance novel you’d find in the supermarket checkout line, or a drunkenly ill-conceived artistic partnership between Lisa Frank and Thomas Kinkade. But, of course, when a video is so incredibly kitschy in the way that “Bound 2” is, it’s usually a signal that the people who created it must have done so intentionally. Other than a basic lack of self-consciousness on the part of the director and star, how else could you explain why an idea this cheesy is executed so gleefully and without restraint?

 

And if you look at it intentionally that way, then maybe it’s possible to see the the video as a deliberately corny ode to the feeling of falling in love, to the understanding that the cheesy and stupid emotions that you never thought would ever possess you can be both surprisingly real and frighteningly in the driver’s seat when it comes to your decisions; that the cheesiness of those emotions actually isn’t fabricated, but real, and might in fact be the only thing really worth championing in a world where so much else is fake and manufactured, which might be why cheap green-screening takes the center stage in the video: as the visual equivalent of the inherent corniness that real, uncool, stupid-looking human love entails.

But, of course, according to Kanye, that’s not what he means. In an interview yesterday with The Breakfast Clubon New York’s Power 105 FM, Kanye stated straightforwardly that his intention with the video was “to show you that this is The Hunger Games. I want to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it.” Admittedly, this is a pretty vague statement, but his remarks later on in the interview clarify his position a bit, as he goes on to say: “We’re enslaved by brands…We’re controlled by peer pressure. We’re controlled by the desire for a particular car.”

So Kanye’s true motivation, if we’re to take him at his word, is to reveal the inherent manipulation behind the images that we consume every day, and the way in which they subjugate us into a cycle of unthinking, slave-like consumption. OK, this sounds familiar. But really, and more specifically, if Kanye really does stand behind his Hunger Games comparison (in that most images we see are part of marketing plan hatched from the minds of the business oligarchs that shut out from positions of power the very people to whom they are marketing), the “Bound 2” video can be seen as pointing out the hypocrisy of music videos in general, but of hip-hop videos in particular. After all, the urban music video tropes of hot, half-naked women and expensive cars have been played to death, but still remain entrenched in visual representations of the genre, as they have been for years. “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes creation of that imagery in order to expose its true stupidity. You know when rappers look cool? When they’re riding motorcycles down a hood street from canted camera angles and multiple perspectives. You know when they don’t? When they’re doing it in a single-angle shot in front of a green screen.

What complicates the execution of this vision is, ultimately, Kardashian’s back story and reputation. When you’re trying to ridicule oppressive and unrealistic imagery, choosing to feature somebody whose sex tape catapulted her to fame (among other dubious achievements) seems detrimental to the cause. Which is partially what makes the über-viral James Franco and Seth Rogan parody of the music video so effective. Because, let’s be real. It’s barely even a parody. The guys just remake the original video, practically shot for shot, with almost no observable changes. So why is it so hilarious simply to replace Kardashian with Rogan?

 

If we’re judging Franco and Rogan’s version by Kanye’s stated intention for the original video, then the parody actually operates in an almost identical way: by revealing the stupidity of the images that the media forces on unwitting consumers on a daily basis. But the big difference in the parody is that Franco and Rogan actually do nail something that Kanye doesn’t: the open objectification of women’s bodies for profit and publicity that hip-hop accepts so readily as an unquestioned fact of life in the music business. And maybe Kanye wasn’t even attempting to touch that in the first place. In all probability, he was too focused on the overall creation of false imagery around artists in general, and not on hip-hop tropes in particular. Likely, he was too close to the subject matter, and too infatuated with his leading lady, to see beyond his own attempt to reveal truths, however narrow, about the nature of consumerism, branding, and the music business. Still, Franco and Rogan get the neglected, but critically important gender piece right that Kanye misses.  To adopt Ye’s phrase: they show us the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us. And the only difference is a fat, shirtless, hairy, white dude in the middle of it.

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Why No One Needs Lady Gaga To Reinvent Pop Music (And Why She Isn’t Doing It Anyway)

In the 1950s and 60s, the Pop Art movement upended the staid world of fine art by incorporating elements from advertising, television, and consumer products packaging. It fundamentally shifted the public perception of visual art, redefined the acceptable subjects for the medium, and subtly exposed the supercilious pretension and meaningless market forces that governed the art world with shadowy power.

In 2013, Lady Gaga released ARTPOP, which features a track called “Sexxx Dreams,” and lyrics like “Cuz that bitch, she’s so thin (oh la la la) / She’s so rich, and so blonde / She’s so fab, it’s beyond.”

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This is not to discount her new album totally out of hand, (because, actually, her R. Kelly collaboration is pretty damn catchy) – just to say that Gaga’s self-proclaimed revolutionary pairing of high-brow art culture and pop music is actually very far from progressive, especially if you take her at her word about the motivation behind the project.

Gaga has stated that “the intention of the album was to put art culture into pop music, a reverse of Warhol.” So immediately it’s pretty obvious that she still considers art and pop music to exist in completely separate and non-overlapping spheres, which may be true, at least for the majority of serious artists who take on some projects partially for the sake of pure creativity, because they can’t not make art, and because even in a modern society that has devalued the role of the creators by overvaluing the distributors (ahem – the Spotify model), they still see value in the process of making stuff for its own sake.

But Lady Gaga’s understanding of art culture seems a bit different. Her obsessions and collaborations with huge art world names like Marina Abramović and Jeff Koons feels a lot like her own admitted obsession with fame, a major and ongoing theme in her music and life. Coincidentally (or not), the artists that Gaga admires most are those that have been prominently in the public eye for years. They are the giants on the world stage. Koons, who designed the ARTPOP album cover, recently sold one of his statues for $58.4 million. It was a gigantic orange balloon dog.

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So if Gaga’s definition of art culture centers primarily around phenomenally successful artists who drag in gigantic profits by creating tacky pieces that seem to tacitly mock thequestionable taste of the buyers who fork up incredible sums of cash for them, well, then it’s not that far off from her understanding of the culture of pop music. A culture that is equally obsessed with profits, fame, and having stupid and vacuous fun. And a culture that, in recent interviews, she has painted as totally divorced from the world of pop music.

In interviews and in her own music, Lady Gaga has always been upfront about pop music as a commercial medium, and about herself as an object of commerce. But if her understanding of art works similarly – as a medium for expression, sure; but more importantly, as a medium for fame and profit – then art and pop are far from incompatible, as she would have her fans believe. In fact, they are almost one and the same. Case in point: the “artRave” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the night of the album’s release that featured Koons’ statues and Abramović’s videos, and which was the culmination of Interscope Records’ $25 million promotional push.

Look, there is nothing wrong with being a successful artist, or in appreciating the work of artists that are successful. But if Lady Gaga wants us to believe that she’s really innovating in the pop world and bringing together supposedly irreconcilable cultures, she should try to look a little deeper, or at least not dissemble so much. Because, come on. Abramović? Jay-Z got to her first anyway.

Why M.I.A. Doesn’t (Really) Care About World Politics

Let me start off by saying that M.I.A.’s new album Matangi is generally pretty enjoyable, and that “Bad Girls” was used to excellent effect in the trailer for “The Heat.”

Moving on…

M.I.A.’s sometimes frustratingly reductionist views on world politics can easily get in the way of simply enjoying her music; music that is often pretty good, and at its best, manages to pull off a tricky blend of catchy memorability, adventurous experimentation, and irreverent fun. Still, it’s hard to ignore her consistent need to obliquely detail the struggles of the disenfranchised, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. Which of course she does only as long as it all takes place over a hot beat featuring indigenous drummers recorded in various exotic locales around the world, ’cause that’s how she rolls.

Which highlights one of the more frustrating inconsistencies of M.I.A.’s music. It’s not about the annoying but forgivable contradictions between her lavish lifestyle and her political views – because really, what successful musician making a living from an anti-authoritarian image can really sustain that point of view once the checks start rolling in? For M.I.A., what’s more questionable is the way in which she portrays herself as the musical mouthpiece of the world’s poor and forgotten third-world citizens, while really using their plight to further her own self-aggrandizement with musical tropes that come straight out of the mainstream pop playbook.

M.I.A. is obviously pretty eager to place herself in contradistinction to meaningless, uncontested pop cliches in favor of more spiritual and alternative leanings, especially on Matangi. “Y.A.L.A.” is a song-length Eastern repudiation of Drake‘s unbearably ubiquitous exhortation to live life to the fullest, and ”Come Walk With Me” turns the tables on generic pop calls to action, with lyrics like:

You ain’t gotta shake it, just be with me
You ain’t gotta throw your hands in the air
Cause tonight we ain’t actin’ like we don’t care

OK, M.I.A., we get it. You’re an iconoclast! You’re different! But, honestly, even if M.I.A. isn’t commanding you to party until the sun rises like the Ke$has and Mileys of the world, most of her lyrics still manage to center around the pretty well-trod pop territory of how chest-thumpingly awesome she is. When she spits out half-baked lines like:

I’m ice cream
And you’re sorbet
They got guns but it points the wrong way
Yeah I’m on it they cirque de soleil

on the album’s title track, it almost doesn’t matter that she’s rapping over tribal beats and occasionally throwing out references to Buddhism, favelas, and vaguely revolutionary politics. She still sounds like just another blaring pop self-promoter, who may appropriate world music, yes, but who does so mostly just as a background pastiche over which she can brag about her own awesomeness.

Even M.I.A.’s political appearances seem less for the betterment of those people whose problems she supposedly brings to light and more for the advancement her own profile. See: Julian Assange‘s ten-minute long Skype call that took place during the opening of M.I.A.’s November 1 show at New York’s Terminal 5, in which he called her “the most courageous woman working in western music, without exception.” Sure, Assange was mostly praising M.I.A. for her political perspectives rather than her hot beats and passable rapping (because you can’t expect a man who looks like he was kicked out of a second-rate Krautrock band to have reliable taste), but his comments and his appearance do highlight the hypocrisy of M.I.A.’s public image as the musical martyr-savior of the politically persecuted. From calling in notorious friends to proselytize for her greatness, to engaging uncritically with hip-hop tropes of self-aggrandizement, M.I.A. comes off as less of a populist organizer and more of an authoritarian leader who co-opts the bandwagon of proletarian equality just so he can erect kick-ass bronze statues of himself in every public square.

Which leaves M.I.A.’s musical message in a pretty precarious place overall. Self-contradiction is a fact of life, and musicians are no more immune to it than anybody else. But there does seem to be something disingenuous about a musician who raps about the problems plaguing the impoverished majorities of the globe, while not-so-covertly pushing her own personal agenda by appropriating and re-selling the very music of the people she is supposedly benefiting. Still, though, it could be worse. She and Assange hopefully aren’t scheming to start a Kraftwerk cover band anytime soon.