Once upon a time in West Hollywood, a friend of mine dragged me out to paint the town red and make me stop using old timey phrases like that when I was visiting Los Angeles. He took me to a gay club called Tiger Heat, which was supposed to be like the magazine in the sense that the twinks there were just as seemingly depthless. But I found one of my first true loves on the dance floor that night: the music video. As I don’t drink often and was then disinclined to engage with anyone in that kind of space socially, I spent the night swaying back and forth to the music, bathed in neon lights, and I stared up at the monstrous screen playing random music videos.
Perhaps surprisingly, yes, there were other music videos released this year not by Beyoncé. And while one may be quick to quip, “And I’m not sure why they bothered”, the little pieces of pop art pleasure here are just as worthy of attention as the tome Lemonade.
“Worship” – Years and Years
Gay photographer Matt Lambert spends a lot of time snapping shots of young men, his work characterized, at least formally, of being a spit in the face of whatever aesthetic Terry Richardson thinks he invented: high key lighting is replaced by a bitter flash; subjects at once cower and exhibit themselves; Lambert captures the wounded demons beneath the angelic visage. So, too, he has applied his style to Years and Years’ single “Worship” off of their album Communion. Lights streak across the frame and frontman Olly Alexander performs in front of an older man in a car, Alexander negotiating how to wield his sexuality, he queerness as a tool. Cruising takes on a kind of obsessive yearning, as Alexander sings, “I’m not gonna tell nobody about you.” It’s all in the dark.
Famous – Kanye West
You can either read Kanye West’s antics as just the inane ramblings of a moron (or someone mentally ill) or part of the text. West has always been, to me, pretty clear about his public performance, and for some reason it’s always surprised me how often I, a mostly Kanye agnostic, have had to defend him as someone who’s well aware of his brutish, questionable actions. To what degree Kanye wants to delineate between life and art, living and performance seems clear from Famous, his short film featuring the (at the time) much talked about art piece of Kanye in bed with the likes of his wife, Kim Kardashian West, Taylor Swift, et al. This is to say that, when you are indeed famous, the performance never ends, for better and worse.
“Blackstar” – David Bowie
The only thing that matters about this video, in spite of its intentionally enigmatic images, is that this is – like Bowie’s Blackstar as a whole – a last goodbye to his audience, and a way for the icon to work through death and dying intimately in a public space.
“I Wanna Boi” – PWR BTTM
I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but there are hues of Tod Haynes in PWR BTTM’s video for “I Wanna Boi”, a sad song that inverts the fun Weezeri-ish constructions of aspirational love into a melancholy realization of unrealistic ideals. Liv Bruce dons a dress and rubber gloves and wanders around a giant house (one that could be found in Carol) with a slowly deflating blowup doll, occasionally looking at themselves in the mirror and wondering whether yearning for that poised domestic bliss is really worth it.
“Your Best American Girl” – Mitski
As Derek McCormack asserted, 2016 was the year white men contemplated death, and people of color asserted their lives. What is built as a meet cute between a handsome white dude and Mitski, who is Asian American, becomes a damning, raw statement about what it’s like to exist in social, even sexual spaces as a non white person with whiteness all around you. Which is not to say white people, but the ideal of beauty and power not being, well, you. As the handsome model thrashes around with an attractive female model, Mitski thrashes around with first her hand and then her guitar. She gets up and leaves, which is as powerful, if not moreso, than the ending of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix: she does not need to be validated by a white male gaze. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be.
“Don’t Touch my Hair” – Solange Knowles
“Don’t touch my soul,” Solange carefully says. We see Solange and a legion of black dancers and models in wide, open spaces, close to the camera and far, looking away, and looking directly at us. A challenge. And inversion of a white gaze prone to objectification. In a sociopolitical climate that continues to grow more fraught, these messages of liberation and power are exactly what we need.