16 August 2006

Hey, isn't that from... ?

A few weeks ago I wrote a brief post raving about the Pipettes' "Pull Shapes" which included a link to a video that wouldn't play the picture, only the sound. I didn't care about the video anyway, I just couldn't find any other source from which to stream the song. I've since found the video on YouTube, and it's terrible in kind of an interesting way.

At first I thought it was a knockoff of Spike Jonze's video (scroll down; fourth one from the top) for Weezer's "Buddy Holly", in which the band is digitally inserted into old footage. But after watching it a few times1 I came to the conclusion the the singers had to be in the same room as some of the extras with whom they interact, so the footage must be original. What makes the video somewhat intriguing is that several of the characters appear to have motives and relationships that affect their interaction but are never explained; is the viewer meant to recognise them from somewhere else, or is the scene deliberately confusing?

As it turns out, there is something to "get". The video is, in fact, one big pop culture reference: it's basically a shot-for-shot remake of a scene from an old Russ Meyer movie. Ha ha, very clever. Problem is, the scene isn't particularly interesting on its own. It was clearly chosen just because it happens to have a band in it and the video's director (or someone close to the band) digs the movie. Not really a good enough reason to create an homage to it.

Now take the video for the Beastie Boys' "Gratitude". It's similarly based on a scene from an old movie, but also stands on its own as a cool video. Why? Because the imagery is interesting regardless, and because there's very little context in the surrounding film from which to remove it, i.e., there's no plot occurring throughout the original scene.

More specifically, a video featuring a band performing to a room full of people wearing gaudy outfits from the 1970s is mildly amusing on its own, but is basically little more than a jumping-off point for a more interesting idea, not the whole idea itself. It just can't stand on its own. On the other hand, a video of a band jamming on the side of a volcano, interspersed with scenes of them chilling around steaming pools of lava, is almost automatically awesome.2 I mean you can't fuck that up. I could watch a Creed video in which they hang out on a volcano and I'd be like, "Man, Creed still rots, but that's a badass video."

In a way the Pipettes video is an example of what happens when cheap postmodernism in popular entertainment disappears into its own navel. The idea that something looks cool just because it's unabashedly lifted from something that came before is flawed for a couple of reasons: one, the "joke" doesn't hold up over the course of a three-minute music video. There were dozens of these referential jokes on The Simpsons ten years ago; there was no punchline, you just patted yourself on the back for recognising it and moved on, but they worked by being rapid-fire, and only took up a few seconds of the show. And two, the material being referenced has to look cool, funny, what have you, standing on its own, even if the viewer isn't familiar with the source. The Pipettes video just looks half-baked, like an idea that wasn't very well thought-out before the shoot began. If you haven't seen the movie, it's just a bunch of silly costumes.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. Don't ask me why. [Return]
  2. You could also make an argument that any video featuring shots of the band's amps with the words "PINK FLOYD — LONDON" stencilled on them is at least halfway there already.[Return]

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