MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #12: Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2004 film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters, a surreal fantasy/science fiction story about taking a big step to help your mother understand you, among other things.

The film starts out speculative in the first few seconds, even before the first person has shown on the screen. We see a constellation in the sky that looks a bit like Orion, though it’s more likely the Scissor Sisters logo. A shooting star fires into the middle of where its belt would be which causes other stars to shoot off in all directions, and one drifts slowly down onto grass. From this, I conclude that although this story involves space, it is a fantastical one rather than one attempting to operate by known laws of physics, since all of this makes no sense in terms of our understanding of celestial bodies.

The star, a literal two-dimensional five-pointed star, drifts to the ground on a planet (earth?) among the grass, and with supernatural speed forms a plant with a bud that blooms into a flower while at the same time disgorging a floating piano with a woman in a blue dress lying on top of it and a man in front of it playing a guitar. Given that these people were born from an exploding flower, it seems unlikely that they are the human people that they appear to be; this impression is only reinforced by the fact that this floating spore spins wildly around, including upside down, without dislodging its passengers in its flight. So, given the evidence, this seems to most likely be an alien spore of a pod person type alien race. It’s not clear how the spore knew that it should create human-looking simulacra, since it has not established contact with anything, though maybe it found traces of DNA in the ground or perhaps this kind of spore is pre-configured for what kinds of people are known to be on this planet.

A man appears in the foreground, facing away from the spore, not outwardly acknowledging their existence, and possibly not consciously aware of them, but when he begins singing to their tune it becomes clear that they are exerting their influence on him, whether or not he is consciously aware of them.

He sings lyrics about trying to grow up “like a good boy oughta” and how he is the favorite of his mother, and the girls all like him because he’s handsome, likes to talk, and is fun. As he’s singing this, the landscape behind him transforms, hills and tractor and cows and bar popping up seemingly two-dimensional like they are a pop-up book. And another man appears, who I think may be an analog for the singer himself, as a woman appears and kisses him on the cheek leaving a red lipstick print. She appears to be the same woman depicted on the floating spore-piano, which raises the question of whether she is the pod-person or whether she is the human being that was copied by the pod-person. A rocket-propelled… jukebox, I think?… chases some kind of winged creature in the background.

“Now the girl’s gone missing and your house has got an empty bed.” Has the girl gone missing because she has been replaced by a pod person? Did he move out of his house? “Folks’ll wonder ’bout the wedding, they won’t listen to a word you said?” My best guess is that he discovered that she was a pod person and managed to defend himself or flee but no one will listen to his dire warnings about the invasion and instead are hyper-focused on trying to resolve what they imagine to be a minor relationship dispute.

These last couple of lines are sang by the ensemble we’ve seen so far singing as a band on the comparatively gargantuan open palms of a woman (the singer’s mother?) who looks suspiciously like the pod woman on the piano who looks down at them with a shake of her head and then throws them up with apparently superhuman strength as all of the band members literally fly up into orbit. From this I gather that she must be the woman that the pod woman has based her form on , and part of her head shake is disapproval at this fraud copying her form as she tries to return the pod woman who copied her and the other copies back to space from whence they came to trouble her no more.

The band continues to play and to dance in space, though the main singer has changed his denim overalls for feathery white overalls. There begins the refrain of the song “Gonna take your mama out all night, yeah we’ll show you what it’s all about. We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne and let the good times all roll out.” Given how the mother reacted before, this taking out of the mother on the town is an attempt on the part of the pod people to keep her from rejecting them and launching them back into space and being forced to deal with traumatic re-entry again and again. Is there a reason they can’t just land somewhere far away from the mother where their subterfuge would go better undetected since the humans they are mimicking would not be nearby to notice, or is their continued existence dependent on being nearby the people they are emulating. Or is she some kind of authority here on alien invasions and likely to be called in to intervene wherever people are acting strangely?

He eventually falls back down to earth, only to fly back up and down again, apparently not in control of this movement. “It’s a struggle living like a good boy oughtta”, no doubt when you have visited outer space with pod people and you may or may not be a pod person yourself, it is hard to live in the cultural norms of your own rural area. “When your mama heard how you’ve been talking, I try to tell you that all she wanna do is cry.” This could mean talking by saying things that are against the cultural norms in this rural area, or it could be talking in alien language to the other pod people coordinating.

The song finishes with our protagonist jamming with the pod people in space again, singing the refrain about taking your mama out all night again, before eventually turning into the Scissors Sisters constellation again–presumably this is part of the pod people reproductive cycle since that’s where the original spore came from.

This is a very interesting science fictional tale about pod people trying to fit into society to survive and earn the right to be themselves among others like them.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be Iron by Woodkid.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #11: Firework by Katy Perry

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2010 film Firework by Katy Perry, a fantasy story about people finding emotional acceptance of themselves and their life situations and harnessing that power in visible and fantastic and potentially hazardous ways.

The film starts with panning across a city-scape, and zooming into Katy Perry (as herself) on a rooftop singing: “Do you ever feel like a plastic bag drifting through the wind, wanting to start again?”

As she sings this, we see other people dealing with their own life situations:

  • A brother and sister trying to stay out of an angry, loud, and violent conflict between their parents.
  • A teenage girl at a pool party, afraid to show her body enough to get in the pool with the rest of them.
  • A child in a children’s hospital with no hair, presumably a cancer patient.

Katy Perry sings: “You just gotta ignite the light and let it shine, just own the night like the Fourth of July.” As she sings this self-affirming mantra, a visible and dangerous change overcomes her as she literally starts shooting fireworks from her chest as her voice swells in volume and intensity, starting with minor sparks like sparklers but with larger bursts like Roman candles. In some ways, her choice of location for unleashing this firestorm is probably safe, in that she is on a rooftop shooting the fireworks into the open air, so the chance of fire is perhaps not too high, though I would like to see firefighting equipment and support staff on the rooftop with her. It’s not clear if these fireworks are something that she calls at will whenever she feels like it, or if it’s something that swells up and happens on its own and she just does the best she can to mitigate the risk. It seems to be an emotional outlet to some degree, presumably cathartic, but to what degree it can be guided or controlled is unclear.

What becomes clear, though, is that her condition is either contagious to the general population, or there is a subset of the population that has the same latent ability that is awakened upon witnessing her rooftop display. So, even if she herself is trying to prevent fire risk, there are additional potentially exponential risks. Others in difficult emotional situations start showing their own fireworks–the boy trying to avoid his parents fighting gets between them to separate them as fireworks burst from his chest (as a threat/dominance display apparently?) , the girl at the pool party sheds her cover-up and joins in the fun, a teenage boy who has apparently been afraid to tell people he is gay approaches his crush and they kiss.

In the most confusing but perhaps helpful variation of this spreading ability, a teenage boy is mugged by a group of other teenage boys but when they try to rifle through his clothes they find only an endless chain of handkerchiefs and a pair of live doves. They stand transfixed at the sparklers bursting from his chest as the boy does a series of card tricks. It’s not clear if the effort at the act is necessary to maintain the frightening display or if he actually thinks that what they are transfixed by is the card tricks themselves.

The child in the hospital wanders down the hallway and finds a room where a woman is giving birth and manifesting her own fireworks. Considering the size of the city that was panned at the beginning, this is a bit confusing, as most hospitals in major metropolitan areas will have large departments physically separated from each other–and it’s confusing that a birthing suite is just a couple doors down from a child’s hospital room, doesn’t the shouting and other noise from the birthing suite keep the children awake who need to be resting? And wouldn’t the expectant mothers prefer to not have random kids walking into their room in the middle of delivery?

When the girl at the pool party surfaces after jumping into the pool, her chest is bursting with flame as well. Thankfully whatever energy it is doesn’t seem to be conducted by the water, as the others in the pool don’t appear to be electrocuted, but we don’t see further in this scene, so it’s entirely possible that her manifesting powers will raise the pool temperature–hopefully just to make it a hot tub rather than raising it to boiling.

Finally, Perry leads an excited throng of people into an open plaza by what appears to be a government building where they dance in formation as they all manifest their own fireworks. This seems to suggest that she is intending to not only unleash this intimidating power in the youths but to teach them to use it as responsibly as she has, favoring open spaces where fire hazard is minimized. And, hey, if these people can express themselves, can discover something new about themselves, and the rest of the city gets a free fireworks display, that could be a net benefit to most. Though, for the sake of any pets living in the area or any veterans with PTSD I hope they don’t do this every night and I hope they announce their intentions ahead of time so people aren’t surprised by it.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Take Your Mama by Scissor Sisters.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #10: Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2013 film Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe, a freedom anthem in a science fiction dystopia, part of a series of interconnected films based in the future city (city-state?) of Metropolis, and in particular The Ministry of Droids of Metropolis.

Note that I covered one of Janelle Monáe’s films previously in Music Video Drilldown #1 about her film Tightrope. Tightrope has a number of similarities to Q.U.E.E.N. and although I think one could make an argument for them being part of the same continuity (more on that later), I don’t see anything that makes it obviously meant to be related from the films I’ve seen so far.

“It’s hard to stop rebels who time travel. But we at the Time Council pride ourselves on doing just that” a recorded video introduction welcomes visitors as they enter the Living Museum, with mellow string music playing the background.

An emblem in the background of the video gives us a great deal of information about the setting. Around the edges of the circular emblem is written “MINISTRY OF DROIDS” and “METROPOLIS”. Neither of these names is further mentioned in this film, but this makes clear continuity connections with other Janelle Monáe films like Many Moons which will be a subject of a future Music Video Drilldown. In the inner circle of the emblem the motto is “Vita En Machina”–I am no Latin expert, but I think it means something like “Life to a Machine” or “Life Within a Machine” which makes sense as being related to the Ministry of Droids which create artifical humanoids. And at the bottom of the inner circle, the year they were established, which at least on my screens is a little bit too blurry to read, but I think it might be in the 2700s, perhaps 2710?

This is no ordinary exhibit, as the narrator explains, “rebels throughout history have been frozen in suspended animation”. The particular exhibit that we are viewing is titled “PROJECT Q.U.E.E.N.”, featuring the rebel group Wondaland and their leader Janelle Monáe (played by Janelle Monáe herself, naturally), as well as her accomplice Badoula Oblongata (Eryka Badu). Project Q.U.E.E.N. is described as a “musical weapons program in the 21st century”, the nature of which is still not understood (at least, by those who prepared this exhibit). It mentions that they are still hunting the various “freedom movements that Wondaland disguised as songs, emotion pictures, and works of art.” So this is not only an exhibit about Janelle Monáe, what strolling museum visitors are looking at is actually the Janelle Monáe themself who has apparently been captured and is being held prisoner here. Within this first half-minute or so the film has set the stage for multiple interconnected films, establishing Janelle Monáe as both an actor and a character, and largely establishing her goals to fight the establishment.

Two young black women enter the scene. Unlike the other museum goers who are wearing formalwear (black suits and black dresses), they are dressed more casually. As the narrator finishes her spiel about disguised freedom movements, one of the young women pulls a vinyl record labeled “Q.U.E.E.N.” and places it on a display with a skull record player, and starts it playing. The mellow instrumentals are replaced with a more jazzy beat (electric guitar). This change in music alerts the museum guards and the women act quickly to incapacitate the guards and duct tape their unconscious forms to keep them from interfering.

The music begins to wake Janelle Monáe and the other members of Wondaland, and Janelle Monáe begins to sing: “I can’t believe the things they say about me”, “they call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules now”. She speaks on how they are criticized for not fitting into the roles that are expected of them, and muses aloud whether it makes her weird or makes her a freak to dance alone late at night. “And tell me what’s the price of fame”–although Janelle Monáe came from humble beginnings in a working family, now that they have become a major celebrity in both music and film, what is the cost of that? How can she stay true to herself with all eyes on her, with the temptations of celebrity lifestyle that are available?

It’s not only her identity as a Black person who has a strong sense of integrity at stake, as they reference their queer identity as well with lines like “is it weird to like the way she wears her tights”. This is a segue to religion as she asks “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? Say will your God accept me in my black and white? Will he approve the way I’m made?” The colors of black and white are repeated multiple times during the song as well as the visual design: much of the exhibit is in stark black and white colors, and almost all of the costumes are entirely black and white apart from a red sash on Janelle Monáe’s initial costume. Her conclusion to this self-reflective musing is the declaration: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”

These questions are asked from a different scene, rather than the Janelle Monáe at the museum, it features Janelle Monáe in a couple of different outfits with a group of Black women dressed in black and white striped clothes. Another analysis I read of Q.U.E.E.N. indicated that the character portrayed in at least one of those scenes is not meant to be the character Janelle Monáe herself but is instead meant to be the android Cindi Mayweather (who is not explicitly mentioned in this film, but who will be discussed at greater length in the next Janelle Monáe film analysis in this series, of the film Many Moons). It is entirely possible that that IS meant to be Cindi Mayweather, it’s possible that there are some visual indications that this is Mayweather, or it’s possible that Janelle Monáe has stated this in an interview or something, but the only ways I know how to differentiate Cindi Mayweather from Janelle Monáe visually is: 1. Cindi Mayweather’s skin color is configurable, seeming to default to a chalky white, but she can configure her skin to look exactly like Janelle Monáe’s skin, so this would only be a clear indicator if she did look chalky white. 2. She has a function button on her left temple as seems to be standard droid design in Metropolis, but in the scene in question her hair is covering the area where the button would be present.

At this point in the film, Badoula Oblongata rouses from her suspended animation and joins the song. In the exhibit at the beginning she is shown wearing a white coat that resembles a doctor’s coat, worn as a dress, with golden forearm guards, accompanied by two men in pristine white suits and white berets overlooking a table that has a camera and some rolled up papers that might be blueprints. She is walking a gray standard poodle.

Badoula Oblongata has a solo section of song where she has a more mellow musical line with lyrics including: “Baby, here comes the freedom song” “There’s a melody, show you another way” and coming to what seems to be the thesis statement of this section: “you gotta testify, because the booty don’t lie”. My interpretation of this is that she (along with Janelle Monáe who is dancing and lipsyncing along to this with supporting gestures) that the way to get through to people about matters of equality of justice is to incorporate it into music that is extremely catchy–so that people will be attracted to the music to sing and dance along to it, and will absorb the truth of the underlying lyrics as they do this. This ties into the museum’s statements about it being one of a number of a series of what they consider to be “musical weapons programs”. This is especially apt in a film which establishes the musician Janelle Monáe themself as a rebel who time-travels because this well describes Janelle Monáe’s music which is incredibly catchy, especially when combined with the visuals from her films, but always (or at least always in the subset of their music that I have heard so far) contains an underlying message about equality and justice and the state of our world which is all the more effective at getting into your head through the medium of an “earworm” song that gets in your head and you find yourself singing the lyrics days or weeks after you last heard it–how can you help but consider and examine lyrics that are constantly repeating in your head?

As the music continues, one of the members of Wondaland sits at a typewriter and types the same line of text over and over again: “We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years.”

At this point in the film Janelle Monáe says “I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say” and changes musical format to finish the song with a rap, now wearing her iconic tuxedo for the first time in this song–talking about being part of a lost generation of people “add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal”. I think this may be referring to several things, but the first that comes to mind is Jim Crow laws and other societal structures that perpetuated the oppression of Black people even after slavery was officially ended. “They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, but when it’s time to pay they turn around and call us needy” and makes it clear that she is tired of watching her people be taken advantage of. She ends the film with a call to action “Will you be electric sheep, electric ladies. Will you sleep? Or will you preach?”

In an interview with Fuse HQ Janelle Monáe explains the acronym of the title of this song:

“‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ definitely is an acronym,” Monae explains during an interview at Fuse HQ. “It’s for those who are marginalized.” She says the “Q” represents the queer community, the “U” for the untouchables, the “E” for emigrants, the second “E” for the excommunicated and the “N” for those labeled as negroid.  “It’s for everyone who’s felt ostracized,” she adds. “I wanted to create something for people who feel like they want to give up because they’re not accepted by society.”

Back to Tightrope for a moment. There are similarities between the two films. They both star Janelle Monáe playing Janelle Monáe. Both films begin with Janelle Monáe held prisoner (in this case a museum, in Tightrope, an asylum), along with members of Wondaland, with music identified as the source of their power (in Tightrope dancing was outlawed because of subversive tendencies and that it leads to illegal magic). There might not be a clear contuity between the two, the powers that are holding her prisoner in each film appear to be very different… but given that Janelle Monáe is canonically a time traveler, it’s entirely plausible that these are different organizations, perhaps in entirely different centuries or that one organization developed into the other over time. The only other clue to the connection might be the shoes on one of the pedestals at the exhibit which seem to be the same shoes Janelle Monáe and her entourage wore in Tightrope (although it’s possible they wear the shoes at other times, I know Janelle Monáe wears tuxedoes many times especially in their earlier work but I’m not sure about the shoes). Are the shoes on the pedestal a hint that this is a single continuity? Or since this exhibit is about Janelle Monáe is that a hint that that was a music video made by Janelle Monáe in the history but not necessarily a historical record? Or was it just an Easter egg with no particular meaning?

Janelle Monáe is a master at doing exactly what is described within this song–writing songs that are catchy as hell, that make your foot tap, that make you want to dance (even for those of us who have never had a talent for dancing), that are full of truths about the problems with our social structure that you find yourself singing along to and getting in your head.

A future Music Video Drilldown will feature Many Moons by Janelle Monáe. I am greatly looking forward to that one because that one has clear connections with this one–not least of which that both take place in Metropolis and involve the Ministry of Droids, but that one stars the android Cindi Mayweather, which to this day is referenced in the dual name of Janelle Monáe’s Twitter account.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Firework by Katy Perry.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #9: Radioactive by Imagine Dragons

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Radioactive by Imagine Dragons, a fantasy action thriller.

The film starts as our protagonist, a young woman in a hoodie, walks through the woods alone with a blanket-covered kennel. She approaches a shack on what appears to be a quiet rural property, until she enters and is surrounded by the ruckus of an underground gambling ring. Men shout and wave money at a central ring while the boss of the ring (Lou Diamond Philips) smokes a cigar and fiddles with a key hung around his neck. A chalkboard marks 115 wins for the Champ and 0 for the Challengers.

We catch glimpses of the singers of the background music, who sometimes pause their music to stare apprehensively at the trapdoor in the ceiling, the implication being that they are imprisoned in a dungeon under the shack, presumably locked with the key around the boss’s neck. They are doing their best to play despite drums and guitar caked in thick layers of dust.

The Challenger turns out to be a monster puppet that looks like a gorilla with long purple hair. Muscular and vicious and under the command of the boss, it puts challengers, other puppets and stuffed animals of various shapes, to quick ends, beating and often dismembering them before they are dropped into the dungeon through the trap door to join Imagine Dragons down there.

Our protagonist reveals the resident of her kennel, a pink and white teddy bear, and she pits it against the Champ. At first it seems the fight is going the way every other fight has gone, with the Champ winning decisively, but just when it’s about to be dumped in the dungeon with the others it rises again and gathers itself, gathering some kind of glowing energy into its plushy fist and knocks out the Champ. The shack goes completely silent as everyone freezes in shock at this unexpected development. The boss sics his guards on the bear, and the bear vaporizes them each in turn, and the gamblers cleare out of the shack in a rush, abandoning the boss. Our protagonist takes his key before dumping the boss down the trap door.

She frees Imagine Dragons to go free, and the boss picks himself up from the ground in the dungeon, as a swarm of his plushy victims closes in on him with squeaking sounds and malicious intent and the boss screams as the screen goes black.

Is this a fantasy film or a documentary, the presence of Imagine Dragons in the film might imply that this is a true story from their personal history. Perhaps before they made it big? I don’t believe I’ve heard any public interviews discussing this incident in greater detail, but it’s possible that the boss of that gambling ring has other surviving friends or family who would get their revenge about anyone who gave too many details. It does make me wonder too if this ring is an isolated occurrence or if there are illegal puppet fighting rings all over the place. And even though the boss got his comeuppance, it’s still sad to think of all of the plush creatures who had died there before that, and the people who came to gamble over it. In many ways it’s a classic tale of bad people getting what’s coming to them, but no doubt the survivors will suffer for the rest of their lives from their trauma there. Maybe someday there will be followup films about them finding their happiness in family or art or charity, however they can.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #8: People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson, a fantasy/SF thriller about a little girl imprisoned in a research facility.

As the film begins we see our protagonist, a young girl in a rainbow-colored dress, sitting on a metal examination table and looking scared and worried while men and women holding clipboards study her. She is remarkable in this initial image because everything else is black-and-white, completely without any other colors, and she has the rainbow dress and what we would consider ordinary skin and hair tones. As the scenes go on we continue to see her in enclosed spaces being asked questions, being watched from windows while she looks at an abacus while she is stared at by monochrome children who sit apart from her.

One of the researchers (Kelly Clarkson) acts differently from the others. Of course, since she has the same face as the non-monochrome singer in the refrain who sings “People like us, we gotta stick together”, so we already have the dramatic irony that this woman is like the girl, even before she pulls out her bright yellow phone to take full color pictures of the girl. This action is, admittedly, rather baffling. That she wants a picture might make sense, but why wouldn’t she be a little more discreet about it, and why would she pull out that phone in front of the other researchers–even if they weren’t paying attention at that moment, that bright yellow is eye-catching even in our chromatic world let alone in a world with no color.

Later when the girl is by herself, the yellow-phoned researcher visits her room alone. She takes off her glasses, and takes the girl’s hand to brush across her face, the first friendly moment or contact the girl has experienced in the film (and who knows how long she has been here!). Where the girl’s hand touches, the researcher’s skin returns to a healthy flesh color instead of the monochrome makeup she had apparently been wearing. They share a smile as the girl realizes she finally has an ally.

Again with this moment, it leads to the question of “why?”. For the second time the girl’s would-be-rescuer, the woman with the yellow phone, has made an extremely risky choice without clear benefit. I mean, it’s a clear benefit to let the girl know she is like her, to gain her trust for her participation in the escape. But why the face? Why not roll up her sleeve and show her there where the skin can be covered up again before they leave the room. Perhaps the woman with the yellow phone knows that whatever cover story she has given will be blown as soon as the girl is out of the room, so there’s no point in covering it up anymore? Or maybe the woman with the yellow phone is more moved by a flare for the dramatic rather than being a strategist.

In any case, soon alarms are blaring and men in suits are chasing, but they escape to their bright red BMW, with men in suits in hot pursuit. (For the third time, again, why didn’t they get a black car or a white car, what is the point of the risk of a red car where anyone would be able to spot them such a long way away as an anomaly in a monochrome landscape!). In the car, the woman with the yellow phone is now in full color again, perhaps there is some aura of color trapped within the car, like the air in a submersible.

They travel through a tunnel and emerge on the other side into a normal chromatic world, where they stop the car and are joined by a crowd of other people in full color.

The men in suits emerge from the tunnel and as they exit their car they stare in wonder at the world of color all around them. Again, I have questions–are they not concerned that these guys in suits won’t panic or continue on with their tasks to try to take the girl by force, perhaps using guns. Unless their continued monochromatic state implies that they are powerless in this world that is not their own–perhaps their guns won’t fire, perhaps they are as ghosts. Or perhaps the woman with the yellow phone is not alone in her flare for needlessly risky dramatic gestures, and maybe that’s inherent in this world of colors.

Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be Radioactive by Imagine Dragons.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #7: Foil by Weird Al Yankovic

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Foil by Weird Al Yankovic a cross-genre story with multiple twists and turns, which is a parody of Royals by Lorde (though the story has no relation).

The story begins very mundane, with our protagonist (Weird Al Yankovic) talking about how he never finishes all of his food when he eats at restaurants. With a segue where we see this on a video monitor it becomes clear that this is part of a pitch in an infomercial or cooking show titled “Now We’re Cooking”, overseen by a producer (Patton Oswalt). He describes the benefits of aluminum foil to seal in flavor and keep food fresh, and to up the marketing cheesiness he is joined by three 1950’s-style women backup singers with big hair and form-fitting outfits (apparently made from foil, natch). He takes a sip of tea…

…and the film takes an abrupt turn as he reveals, to the surprise of the producer, that he has figured out the secret to the shadow organizations running our country, and starts namedropping conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, black helicopters, fake moon landing, and that sort of thing, as the lighting gets dark and the videos all change to something darker, and the backup singers drop away as the producer looks on in dismay at the disaster this is becoming. All before saying he’s protected because he made this hat…

…from aluminum foil! And the story comes full circle as the lighting comes back up and the backup singers return again as he turns the advertisement around to aluminum foil hats to protect yourself from mind control and aliens! But soon two men in black arrive, and are directed by the producer onstage, where they inject our protagonist with something and drag him away (on camera, for some reason, you would think they would cut the feed first). The producer sighs in relief and pulls off his mask to reveal that he is apparently a lizard alien.

This story is so much fun, and the twists and turns especially the first time are great fun. The clear best moment in it all is the twist where he returns from the conspiracy theory segue and the backup singers return to promote aluminum foil as a way to fight the shadow government, but still with the cheesy overmarketed costumes and marketing. A great parody and comedy film.

Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be People Like Us by Kelly Clarkson.

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #6: She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters, about an epic and violent battle between a couple at a restaurant. Fair warning: the film does depict quite a few acts of domestic abuse. As well as the title implying a stance about gender roles that some may prefer not to delve into.

And if I had to change one thing about this film it would be the title, intentionally misgendering a woman because she is aggressive. I think it’s done for a laugh, but I did not find that funny. If I didn’t enjoy other aspects of it greatly I might not have recommended it at all.

The film starts with a couple, a man and a woman, seated across from each other at a table at a restaurant, chatting (we can’t hear what they’re saying) and enjoying each other’s company. This mood does not last long as apparently he says something that offends her, and she responds in anger, visibly shouting “What?!” with a wave of her arms. I got the impression they are no strangers to sudden fights breaking out, apparently having been together for quite some time and having come to accept them as part of the relationship.

The film is a series of escalations in this fight. She escalates the fight by throwing her napkin at him, which they are soon sending back and forth as quick as a tennis match. Soon they both escalate the fight simultaneously by both reaching for the surprisingly large knives in their table settings and dueling over the table with them. He collects all of the plates and she dares him to throw them. He does, and she dodges the first few, and catches plates in both hands, her teeth, and between her feet and throws these back at him, hitting him with every one, and she breaks another thrown plate in mid-air with a karate chop.

Although she has shown incredible physical abilities, we start to see her more supernatural powers next as she doffs her jacket and sets it flying across the room to punch her man in the throat, leaving him gasping.

The waiter comes out with new plates and she throws one of them as well and the waiter makes a heroic dive to retrieve the plat before it impact. He manages to hit her for the first time with the remaining plate, and then she really flies into a rage. When the harried waiter arrives with a new covered platter he places it and retreats before she throws that, but the man launches the platter into the air, spilling the lobster out of the platter, and makes a super-human jump to catch it and launch it at her; the claws catch her long hair and sever it at the shoulders.

One of the restaurant staff picks this unfortunate time to deliver the check and she splits him half up his torso with her bare hand, and moments later cuts the chef clean in two. Finally she delivers the coup d’etat by using her magic to compel her jacket to hold him still while her severed locks of hair strangle him until he goes limp. Once he is lying on the floor she makes a show of regret and she picks him off and carries him out of the scene while they seem to chat cordially again.

Before I get into examining the plot and themes further, I would like to mention that what made this film remarkable to me was not the plot or the themes, but the practical special effects on display here. The legs of the two characters on the screen are clever puppetry performed by black-clad puppeteers who are often entirely visible against the black background of the scene. In addition, anything thrown or moving of its own volition in the scene is also operated by puppetry. The most impressive part, in my opinion, was the man’s jump to reach the lobster–the scene takes what looks like a 90 degree camera “bullet-time” style camera rotation from horizontal to looking directly down on the scene, but as far as I can tell the camera is stationary throughout the whole film and any apparent movement is actually the set and characters being moved instead. In this case that included all of the surrounding tables being lifted off the ground by more of the puppeteers and rotated 90 degrees while the actors did their best to hold the same facial expressions and upper-body position except for the rotation. It was really quite impressive! Many of the special effects, especially the stick-thing legs, look kindof weird, but I was really impressed by it and the surreal look of it was very appealing.

As for the subject matter of the piece, it depicts a very serious subject (domestic abuse) in a light that seems like it’s meant to be aiming at humor–if that’s the intent I think it misses most of the time. While I enjoyed the film, much of that had to do with the awesome special effects, although when she cuts the kitchen staff into pieces with her bare hands and they manage to get themselves off stage under their own power that was darkly humorous. But overall it is a very hard film to recommend to people because of the “domestic abuse as humor” angle.

Somewhat tied into that, I find the title of the film makes me wonder what the filmmakers were trying to convey: “She’s My Man”. I’m not sure if they’re trying to say that she is the more “manly” of the two because of her determination, physical prowess, and aggressiveness, asserting dominance in the relationship through her abuse, in the role that stereotypes dictate is the man’s to hold, a woman holding a role defined by its toxic masculinity?

I’m not sure. But, even if it’s hard to recommend without knowing if the person I’m talking to has a history that involves domestic abuse, the practical effects in this are really extraordinary!

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be “Foil” by Weird Al Yankovic)

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #5: Genghis Khan by Miike Snow

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identiy the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Genghis Khan by Miike Snow, an action/spy movie turned romance.

The film starts with a line of men in military uniforms standing at attention as their commanding officer (who is dressed in military garb also and has a very distinctive metal prosthetic nose) walks past them to the center of the room large concrete room where a man in a bowtie and a tuxedo shirt is strapped to a table with a giant laser mounted on the ceiling pointed directly at him. The scenario calls to mind the third act of a James Bond film where the villain has captured bond and it is just about time for Bond to make his escape, but this time the villain is our protagonist.

And, of course, next is the monologuing, which the villain does to the music, seeming to be in a happily vindictive mood, taking little dancing steps in celebration at the imminent devise of his rival. Only knowing what we have seen so far in the film, the choice of monologuing topic is a bit odd, saying that he “gets a little bit Genghis Khan” and doesn’t want him to “get it on with nobody else but me”. Is there a romantic, or at least sexual, history between these characters? James Bond has certainly had trysts with women villains before in his films, but this could be an interesting new angle to it.

A scientist in a white coat delivers a remote control to our villain, and with great relish from him and great fear from his captive he poises his finger to press the button but is interrupted with a buzzer that announces that it is 5pm, and apparently the supervillain bunker workday is over and it’s time to go home. This is a particularly interesting moment in the film, because clearly he has been looking forward to this moment for a long time, it’s surprising that he would go home just because the clock struck. Perhaps he has felt strongly about work-life balance and it’s important to him that he leave on time and leave his work at the office. Perhaps he gets paid for supervillainy only during his work hours and killing the spy when he’s not getting paid for it would make him a chump in his own reckoning. Perhaps it’s an insurance/worker’s comp thing where he could get in trouble for working outside of working hours. Perhaps his family expects him home at a particular time. In any case, with a roll of his eyes, he heads home, leaving the spy strapped to the table overnight.

At home he is greeted by his lovely wife and his children: a young boy and girl. He smiles when his daughter waves to him, but the manufactured smile quickly slips. As they eat dinner together he stares blankly and his wife seems to notice something is amiss, but doesn’t say anything, and later in bed she is sleeping soundly while he sits up in bed (stilling wearing his uniform) and continues to mull.

The next day, back at the supervillain office, he continues his monologue to the spy again, if anything with more vigor, and his energy seems to be contagious as well, even soldiers passing through the scene say “ooh” along with the song. The laser is powered up again and there seems to be nothing keeping the spy from his doom. But he hesitates, and monologues about wanting to make up his mind but not knowing himself, and instead of pushing the big red “KILL” button he pushes the big green “RELEASE” button.

The spy leaps up from the table and within seconds a squad of soldiers faces him down with automatic weapons, but the villain orders them to let the spy go, and the villain turns away to let the spy make his escape. But, instead of leaving, the spy carries on with the same monologue about not knowing himself, and he turns back, and sees out loud the main monologue again about getting a little bit Genghis Khan. The two join hands, and perform a series of cute pair dance moves together.

Flash forward to a scene at the villain’s home again. This time he has a more genuine smile as the kids come to greet him, and the spy (now in more casual clothes) is just putting dinner on the table. They have happy conversation and they share a romantic look over the table between themselves, and later they are both reading in bed in a quiet and pleasant moment as the villain smiles to himself and everything seems to have ended happily…

Until we see that this bedroom is being surveilled by none other than the villain’s ex-wife, who repeats the mantra about being a little bit Genghis Khan and not wanting him to get it on with “nobody else but me”, and ominous music plays as the film ends.

This one is really interesting and fun in its subversion of the superspy-and-villain nemeses trope. Even if someone hasn’t seen many James Bond films, there are so many parodies and homages that you can’t help to have absorbed some of it, and so it is a clever way to set up a short film. “I know what this is” you say as you see the giant laser, and just a little bit of set-dressing sets up your expectations, before dashing them and going a different direction. Spy movies rarely (if ever) show a villain having a stereotypical family life at home, so that in itself is a new angle on it, and the reversal at the end with a new villain promises potential for a sequel–apparently living with him all these years has taught her some tricks. What role will our erstwhile villain play in the next story? Will he continue his previous villainous ways even though he is happier at home? Or was his happiness at home inextricably tied with his villainy? Has the spy turned his allegiance’s as well, is he exiled from his home country for fraternizing with the enemy, or is this development still a secret from them. I look forward to seeing the sequel to find out!

(Next up in the Music Video Drilldown series will be She’s My Man by Scissor Sisters)

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #4: Run Boy Run by Woodkid

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identiy the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is Run Boy Run by Woodkid, a black-and-white fantasy thriller chase.

The first image we see is of an isolated stark white building in the mountains, with a narrow tower that resembles a skyscraper design, though much smaller. The only sound is the deep and resonant ring of a deep church bell. On the third stroke of the bell the visual stillness of the scene is broken as the title character, the boy who is never named, exits the building on the right, sprinting as though his life depends on it.

After the fourth toll of the bell we see the boy much more closely. He is wearing what appears to be a schoolboy’s uniform with short pants, a lapeled jacket, a collared shirt, and a backpack. Even as he runs at an incredible pace, he checks over his shoulder for signs of pursuit and his terror is evident as tears stream down his cheeks. The pounding percussion of the music underscores the urgency, as do the lyrics: “this world is not made for you” and “they’re trying to catch you”. It’s not clear what exactly is pursuing the boy, but with his evident terror and the superhuman effort he is putting into escape, I can’t help but root for him every time I see this. As the film opens, we

He is joined by a pack of crows flying in the same direction, and at first we have to wonder if these are what he is fleeing from, or at least if they are agents of what he is fleeing from. And soon the boy outpaces the flying crows anyway.

After the lyrics say “this race is a prophecy” and “break out from society”, a new creature joins the scene: what appears to be an earth elemental of moss and grass and stone with long pointed horns rises up from the level ground directly under the boy, and the boy falls. The pace of the music slows as the creature rises to its full height from the ground, humanoid and as tall as a tall man, and it appears that everything may be lost; he may have lost the chase. The boy struggles to raise himself back to his feet but before he can the creature scoops him up under its arm (roughly but the roughness appears to be from a sense of urgency rather than malice) and begins running in the same direction the boy had been running.

When the boy has had a moment to catch his breath, the elemental returns the boy to his feet and they run together. Meanwhile the elemental beckons offscreen and soon more and more elementals of a similar size, some that appear to have cattle skulls for heads. The original elemental hands him a sword, and others arm him with a two-horned Viking helmet and a round buckler shield. At this point in the film the boy no longer appears scared–he looks determined and fierce. This support from an unexpected corner has bolstered his courage, though we still have not seen what pursues him.

When the boy leaps from a rock he lifts off up into the clouds before landing safely back among the elementals again–clearly this boy is just beginning to discover his extraordinary abilities, and reveling in his newfound freedom! He beckons to the elementals and yet more of them rise from the ground, and in more variety, ranging from tiny ones that run on all fours, to ever larger and larger that are dressed and armed as warriors and seem to be built of stone and tree trunks. An airship rises in the distance, presumably associated with the rest of these warriors supporting the boy. The boy at this point appears happy for the first time in the film, smiling and joyous and confident.

We see ahead to his destination: a major metropolitan center of immaculate white buildings that recall the style of the building he is running away from, but many more and denser. We see one building with banners flying a sigil of two crossed keys: the symbol of the rulers of the city? The boy finally stops on a rocky promontory with a view of the city and he raises his sword to it, though it’s unclear whether this is a sign that he is saluting it as a sign of safety or home or if he has hostile intent. Are the elementals merely an escort to ensure his safety, or does he plan to lead them in an assault on the city? Why do the elements follow him? Does he have family or friends waiting for him? What is the prophecy that speaks of his escape? At no point in the film do we see his pursuers–is he trying to run away from responsibilities, from becoming a man? Or is there a real pursuer, and what is their intent?

The film ends there with more questions than answers, but in a way that left me hungry for more: I have seen at least one other by Woodkid that seems to tie into the events of this one somehow, with the boy and the sigil of the crossed keys, though I haven’t seen enough to understand the story of this one better–I will try to watch more and give my interpretation as I can!

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be Genghis Khan by Miike Snow)

MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #3: Bad Blood by Taylor Swift

written by David Steffen

This is the third in a new series of articles wherein I examine a music video by a well-known artist as a short film, trying to identify the story arcs and the character motivations, and consider the larger implications of things that we get glimpses of in the story. 

This time we are taking a look at Bad Blood by Taylor Swift, featuring Kendrick Lamar, a 2015 blockbuster action film with an all-star cast.

The film begins with an opening shot of a city skyline at night and transitions inside to an office space that appears to be empty until a man wearing a business side and a headband-style mask slams onto the top of the frontmost desk and a security alarm blares and we see a woman (Taylor Swift) attacking another suit by locking her legs around his head and throwing him before calmly applying fresh lipstick while her character name “Catastrophe” displays next to her.

She is not alone in this infiltration as Arsyn (Selena Gomez) enters the scene, disabling yet another suit. Together they make quick work of a whole squad of… enemy agents? My first thought on this scene was they were infiltrating to steal something, but it seems unlikely that security guards in an office building would wear masks as a matter of course, even if they are security guards working for a villain.

Catastrophe lays her hands on a silver briefcase that appears to be of some importance–though it’s not clear where it comes from, flying through the air in the middle of the scene, accidentally thrown by a disabled suit? If it is so important, why does the guy run toward her while carrying it, rather than running away? When Catastrophe lets her guard down Arsyn blows powder in her face from a makeup kit and kicks Catastrophe through a nearby window where she falls a great distance and smashes into a car and Arsyn leaves her for dead. (I wouldn’t want to pay the insurance on that building if they have a high-rise with floor to ceiling windows and don’t have shatter-proof glass).

Catastrophe is badly injured but not dead, and she is mended by the futuristic machines of tech expert Welvin Da Great (Kendrick Lamar) with the assistance of a trio of women (androids?) called The Trinity (Hailee Steinfeld). This high-tech, presumably high budget suite suggests that Catastrophe works for a high-budget spy organization, or mercenary I suppose since they are probably way too noticeable to be proper spies.

About three-fourths of the film from this point is an extended training montage as Catastrophe sharpens her skills in various areas with different specialists within the organization. The cast is too large to list here, but they include Mother Chucker (Carla Delevingne) a nunchuck specialist, Cutthroat (Zendaya) throwing knife specialist, Domino (Jessica Alba) motorcycle specialist, and Destructa X (Ellie Goulding) who carries a missile launcher everywhere she goes, even indoors. Each appearance is little more than a brief cameo as Catastrophe hones her skills with each of them. Lucky Fiori (Lena Dunham) seems to be the leader of the organization–at least, it’s hard to imagine she plays any other role since she is not seen doing anything but smoking a cigar.

The organization is certainly formiddable and presumably has some deep pockets considering the weaponry and facilities, and given that Catastrophe and others appear to routinely damage the architecture and no one seems to care. The fact that Destructa X carries her missile launcher around indoors does raise some questions about the organizations friendly fire record–since they appear to be some kind of mercenary or special forces group, I imagine that everyone there is accustomed to risking their lives, but still one would think they would want to avoid one of their own accidentally wiping out a dozen or more of their own agents with a slip of the finger–I would be much more worried about that than about applying so many resources to stopping Arsyn.

Another significant feature of the organization is that it appears to be women-led and almost entirely woman-staffed–Welvin Da Great appearing to be the sole exception. Some of the wardrobe choices are a little bit perplexing for a merc or special forces group–particularly platform shoes and that sort of thing that can’t be conducive to running though they certainly look nice.

In the final scene, Catastrophe and an entourage of six other agents face off against Arsyn and a matching entourage ringed by a truly apocolayptic ring of explosions that no one seems at all worried about. Arsyn’s entourage all wear full leather face-masks–is this the uniform of a rival organization, or are these moles who are still trying to conceal their identity? Despite the heavy weaponry including missile launchers and bullet-bandoliers, the two groups don’t attack from a distance or attack undercover, but instead walk up to within arm’s reach of each other before Catastrophe and Arsyn and simultaneously attack each other with their bare hands.

This action film has an all-star cast, and certainly plenty of action. Who doesn’t love a good training montage between well-matched and imposing opponents, or a big action star face-off at the end. If you’re looking for just action, there is plenty of that. Considering the short length of the film, the size of the cast leaves little room for character development as the film breathlessly runs from one character to the next. I would be interested in watching spinoff films for any number of these characters (Cutthroat and Domino in particular, because I’ve liked Zendaya’s and Alba’s previous acting work).

The one character that has significant screen-time is our protagonist Catastrophe, and I’m not sure that I ever fully understood her either. She is excellent at what she does and was only defeated in the film by a betrayal by a trusted ally at a distracted moment. It’s understandable that she would want revenge for that betrayal, and to make sure that Arsyn can never do it again. But I would have liked to know more about why the organization thought it a worthwhile use of so many resources–why is it so important for Arsyn to be killed and to risk so many agents to do it. Is it driven primarily by Catastrophe’s vendetta or does the organization have its own purpose apart from that? What was in the briefcase? Who were they stealing the briefcase from, and why weren’t they smart enough to send the briefcase away from the attackers instead of toward them? The film does not answer any of these questions, though Lucky Fiori seems generally unconcerned with anything besides smoking her cigar, so I got the impression that Catastrophe has the free reign to direct this operation at her own directive.

(Next up in the Music Drilldown series will be Run Boy Run by Woodkid)