Thursday, 17 September 2009

Shoulda put a ring on it

Kanye West's spectacle at the VMAs proved what most people already knew: he's a bit of an arse. Aside from that, his whinge about Beyonce's video for Single Ladies being more deserving of the award reminded me of how great that video actually is.

It's pure simplicity, a pared down demonstration of the defining features of music videos today. On screen it's just Beyonce and two fantastic back up dancers. Three dancers is the minimum you can have for a group dance performance. With only one back up the focus shifts away from the lead and there is an implied dynamic of partnership (and subtle lesbian undertones) and/or competition where we are led to question the lead's dominance. With three you get that nice symmetry and resultant focus on the lead. Of course one could ask why not just have Beyonce dancing on her own? Well a fundamental truth is that dancing ALWAYS looks better when synchronised among a number of people. Flamboyant moves which would look absurd when performed by a lone dancer gain a sort of legitimacy when mirrored by others, hence the ubiquitous 'dancing triangle'.

This dancing trio provides all the content for the video. It's a credit to the choreographers that it doesn't seem to drag on or become repetitive. Of course this is helped by a few simple lighting effects and some tricky camera work. Apart from maintaining visual interest, these camera tricks also serve to remind us that what we are watching is not real, it is music video. Without these effects the clip would be reduced to documentary. Music video shouldn't condescend to representing the 'real'. It should unite audio and vision in a synergistic way to excite us. The sweeping acrobatic camera angles make us aware of the camera's presence and remind us that what we are seeing is a produced image, mediated through a camera and a production team. Similarly, the simple but drastic change in lighting conditions (quick fades of the background to white and back again), washes out the studio walls and the line of perspective running across the back which indicates where the wall meets the floor. All reference points melt away and the dancers are de-localised. They are not grounded in a physical location. This further emphasises the 'produced' nature of the video and detaches the on screen action from anything 'real' or concrete.

What we are seeing are the distilled essences of the contemporary pop video. There is no simpler way of uniting audio and vision while representing the artist other than through dance. Dance is the most basic human way of portraying music visually. The other essence is the music video's detachment from a 'real'. A music video should be free of the burden of realist representation. The visual's should serve the audio without compromise, even if this means the video's content can't be located or placed in our understanding of the 'real world'. Single Ladies achieves this in a very elegant way, avoiding excess without seeming restrained.

It really is a great video and I'm happy it won many of the other awards up for grabs at the VMAs.

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