As the debt ceiling languishes unraised, whole regions of the US lie under floodwaters while others dry into baked earth, and the wedding cake topper industry finds itself facing major overhauls, people naturally want to know: What are music videos doing to reflect these radically shifting, changing times?
Perhaps the last popular art form to remain willfully, artistically obscure, music videos in the last couple years–thanks to YouTube and now, VEVO–have re-emerged as a cultural barometer, rather than just the bling culture barometer they had largely become around the time of TRL's last days. In the last few months, a spate of videos with post-apocalypse flair and survivalist chic have been released, a mini canon contending with how disruptive our current times feel, how insurmountable and globally consuming the issues of our day seem, and how hard it can be to imagine a sunny outcome. That the videos' interpretations of armageddon range from pop schlock dance-offs to we've-been-here-before verité only demonstrates the fertility of the form, its elastic athleticism at the forefront of cultural articulation.
The newest video of the group, released last Monday, is for “Helena Beat,” the second single from L.A. pop jewelers Foster the People. Like MGMT before them, Foster will likely represent an end times of their own in your musical summer, which will split into the time before those songs were everywhere you turned and the time when you were begging for relief. Director Ace Norton opens the video with stock news footage of wars, political turmoil and environmental disaster–the hallmarks that cross allegory off the list and let you know that this is our potential world, we're talking about–but soon releases us onto the open, bombed-out road with Mark Foster, a lone falsetto in the wilderness.
A tribe of dirt-smudged kids, lying somewhere between Lord of the Flies nu ravers and refugees from a Halloween superstore explosion systematically capture the band members. These warlords go on to smack the living hair product out of the band, push burning furniture off ledges within their eyesight, smash their van and instruments, and even lightly haze them by wheeling them through a tower of Styrofoam blocks. Whatever the depravity of these acts, the children of the shitty future are angry, at grown-ups specifically.
A final set piece sees funky mask/helmets stuck onto the heads of Mark Foster and a heretofore-unseen old man. A large amount of lightning transmutes Foster into a kid and the old man into … an older man, while the tribal children sing on. Somewhere in the slightly dizzy math of that ending seems to be a feeling. It might be that, in this world on the brink, we're both the adults that have brought us to this point and the kids that feel overwhelmed at having inherited it. It might also be that old people are a nice visual balance to young people, or even something else entirely.
Two weeks ago the New York band Cults submitted an entry for the end times catalog with a very different, much sparer video. “Go Outside,” directed by Isaih Seret, carefully places the band members in historical footage of pre-tragedy Jonestown, from the Los Angeles church services to the last glimpses of Leo Ryan walking to the airstrip. More than an update to Spike Jonze's blockbuster lark of compositing Weezer into Happy Days — and much more than a cheap riff on the band's name — the video lets Seret's eloquent, Paul Thomas Anderson-esque historical fetish fully bloom.
Seret's video reminds us that times have felt simultaneously flush and very hard before, and that folks have looked to entirely escape those pressures in recent memory. The prosaic alternative practices of the early 21st century–recycling, hybrid cars, meat substitutes, urban homesteading and buying the same products with new green labels–have trickled up from the back-to-the-landers, co-ops, communes and People's Temples of the '70s, more easily consumable ways of re-inventing our lives. Cults' presence among the Temple, smiling and singing along, pays tribute to how truly those people were like us, how deeply they wanted to find a new way, and mourns in the shadow of the idea that to fix our world, we must leave it.
But who are we kidding? “Helena Beat” and “Go Outside” have 350,000 views between them, a number which will grow but probably not approach the 243 million views shared by the more fun and fashionable adherents of doomsday-as-aesthetic: Beyoncé, Britney and, sharing the same sentence clause, LMFAO.
Britney's “Till the World Ends” riffs lightly, as videos of this pop caliber are welcome to do, on a 2012/rapture concept, sending Spears and a budget's-worth of dancers underground to party and writhe their asses off, safe from intercut footage of CGI rocks in the sky. Director Ray Kay does a thorough job of showing of what making something a pure aesthetic trapping can do: There is little to say about the video, not much guess to hazard as to what it might be saying, other than that when humanity survives the coming storm, we'll probably send a perfectly coifed, pretty white girl up top first, to pop her head out of a manhole cover and grin at how silly the sun has been for being gone for so long.
Back in March, LMFAO and director Mickey Finnegan gave the world a nice 28 Days Later take-off for their gigantically entrancing single “Party Rock Anthem”–for once, an apt zombie reference! It sounds silly, but there's a depth to be plumbed in comparing “Party Rock” to “Thriller,” the former set in a goofy, schlocky wasteland where every survivor of a dance-pocalypse grooves both to the same song and to their own individual style. Mass choreography gives way to dance circles and contests as well as mutual appreciation. And sure, by the end, “Party Rock” has basically forgotten its conceit altogether, but it's also shoved its protagonists to the edges of a wider community, giving space to showcase the awesome talents of its day labor dancers, an invitation to take what LMFAO have created and make your own party rock paramount.
Beyoncé's been saved for last because with “Run the World (Girls),” released last month, she's achieved some of the fanciest tricks. Set in a prettified Mad Max world where armies of vaguely militarized men and hooker warrior women dance-off under the 105 freeway, the video anesthetizes not just any hope that the song's chorus is more than a weird, sad joke, but brutalizes the memory of the ludicrously dirty Eric Wareheim video for “Pon De Floor,” the Major Lazer track that is the foundation, walls and furnishings within B's single.
It's hard to resist feeling like the single has been less than successful not only because it so poorly speaks for the half of the world it purports to empower, but also because it has such a fraught relationship with co-optation and paying lip service to ideas, rather than creating anew. The video doubles down on that by adding on layers of primitivism and exoticism. Throw in ladies rolling around in the dirt for good measure.
In a world weighed down by the complexities of all the voices that we need to be better at hearing, “Run the World” is a master class in the enduringly unimaginative traditions that pop can, unfortunately, uphold.