Musically, OK Go and Erykah Baduh have little in common; the artists’ core audiences, even less. But their recent, much-discussed videos are cut from the same cloth. As anyone with an open browser knows, OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” records an elaborate, Rube Goldberg-style chain reaction, which unfolds in an unbroken sequence over the song’s four-minute length. What keeps you watching isn’t so much the mechanism’s can-do engineering as the knowledge that a single untripped wire or errant bowling ball would require starting from scratch. (In theory, anyway: YouTube user “freddiew” has pinpointed digital edits that suggest, like the band’s paint-splattered jumpsuits, the number of attempts involved.) Badu’s “Window Seat” also documents a notionally unrepeatable real-time stunt, as the singer strips to full nudity among unwitting passers-by on a stroll through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, in what appears to be an uncut six-minute take. (The location is a clue to the surprise ending, which I won’t spoil further.)
Neither video’s conceit is original: Badu’s is an acknowledged “cover” of Matt and Kim’s clothing-optional “Lesson Learned” clip, while OK Go’s emulates the Japanese children’s show Pythagoras Switch – though also see Trashcan Sinatras, below. Their appearance at the current moment, though, counterbalances the (not-really-a) hermaphrodite in the room: Lady Gaga’s “Telephone.” That featurette’s celebration of its own artifice (and the hype around its rollout) hearkens to MTV’s Reagan-area peak, with its world premieres, blockbusting effects budgets, and multi-clip imagery-arcs (though Beyoncé’s getaway pickup is no Eliminator). For all that Lady Gaga stakes out pop-celebrity’s cutting edge, these haute-‘80s qualities give “Telephone” a retrograde, even nostalgic feel. With the role of traditional broadcasting increasingly subsumed by YouTube, the high-concept, constraint-driven video may be better adapted to the way such content now passes from eye to eye: “You’ve got to see this” versus “This is what our programmers have decided you’ll see.”
The style is au courant, but not new. Just as “Telephone” nods to Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, and Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, the cinematic pedigree of the one- or few-take video includes Hitchock’s Rope, woven from ten sequences, each roughly a film-canister long, and the 96-minute unbroken Steadicam shot of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. Other inspirations lie at the margins of commercial movie-making, notably the “structuralist film” underground of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which explored the elements of cinema with an unyielding rigor, and the low-cost video documentation associated with Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci and other performance artists of the period. The back-to-basics impetus of Lars Von Trier’s short-lived Dogme 95 manifesto-cum-movement also informs many of these works.
That last connection may help explain the mode’s present resurgence. At a moment when few listeners count the use of studio gadgetry — from ProTools micro-editing to pitch correction — against artists’ credibility, these videos transfer old arguments about “integrity,” in the root sense of “wholeness,” from the auditory to the visual plane, with Badu’s forthright presentation of her own body as the clearest case. With the notion of a “sell-out” sounding ever more archaic, much the same applies to the kind of integrity involved in artists’ increasingly internecine business dealings. “This Too Shall Pass,” for example, marks OK Go’s ability to call their own shots since buying themselves back from Capitol/EMI, but the video’s production was underwritten by State Farm Insurance. Make no mistake: Formal devices notwithstanding, the videos below are no more (or less) real or authentic than any others, serving the same promotional functions and projecting their artists’ images – even those that never appear onscreen — no less self-consciously than Gaga’s saturated palette and frame-dropping jitters. Even so, they form a minor counter-tradition to the rapidly-edited, slickly art-directed norms of the genre. While music video remains, in Greil Marcus’ memorable phrase, “the pornography of semiotics,” many of these examples are, if nothing else, closer in spirit to Andy Warhol’s Blowjob than the Dark Brothers’ New Wave Hookers.
The Replacements – “Bastards of Young” (1984)
Though it hints at narrative elements purged by later, purer practitioners, one of the seminal works of structuralist cinema is Michael Snow’s 1967 Wavelength, comprised of a single 45-minute zoom-shot that moves at a mechanical rate toward one wall of a nearly-abandoned loft space. The Replacements’ variant inverts Snow’s central move: the clip’s sole shot is a slow pull-back from a stereo speaker into a milkcrate- and ashtray-littered living room, its most prominent “action” the speaker cone’s pulsations. It’s likely that they hit on the strategy independently, as a way of raising a middle-finger to “corporate” manipulation of their images – and consolidating their own.
R.E.M. – “So. Central Rain” (1984)
An elegantly-staged but otherwise standard multi-camera soundstage performance, with one crucial difference: Michael Stipe’s vocal is the one you see him singing, recorded during the shoot against the instrumental track mimed by the rest of the band. (For unknown reasons, currently available online versions substitute the original studio track.) This was a canny choice for a band heavily invested in their audience’s recognition of their relative autonomy, and whether R.E.M. made it out of annoyance with one of the form’s foundational fictions or to indulge Stipe’s uncertainty about his own lipsynching skills, one thing is clear from their later career: they got over it.