November 15, 2010


Head and Shoulders

The video for Janelle Monáe's "Cold War" is deceptively simple-looking: we see the famously high-concept-minded singer in very tight close-up, just her head and bare shoulders, lip-synching the song. Well, that's almost what we see. We see it filtered through what the video makes us aware is a camera—there's a time-code visible in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, and a little bit of a silent take at the very beginning. And, actually, Monáe isn't singing the whole time, and sometimes her lips are moving when nothing's coming out, and she ducks out of the camera's path a little, and goes in and out of (digital rather than physical) focus, and for the last minute or so of the song a single tear slowly trickles down her right cheek.

That's all in the service of what the playwright Bertolt Brecht called the Verfremdungseffekt—the "distancing effect" of calling attention to the apparatus around a performance, to keep an audience aware that it's not seeing something happening in real life. Monáe isn't really singing directly and emotionally to us: she's an archandroid, simulating emotion very convincingly except for the moments when the technology slips.

The "Cold War" video is one of a long chain of videos that frame their subject very much the same way. Its earliest identifiable ancestor is probably the video that photographer Mick Rock shot in 1973 for (noted Brecht fan) David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" Rock doesn't restrict himself to only showing Bowie's face, but it's his chief subject, and (noted Bowie fan) Monáe has to have picked up some ideas from Bowie's expressions and poses. The "Cold War" family tree really begins, though, with Kevin Godley and Lol Creme's black-and-white video for their 1985 single "Cry"—one face after another, theirs and other people's, slowly faded into one another as they blink back tears and lip-synch the song. In 2010, it's nearly the kind of thing a 12-year-old could do on a home computer; 25 years ago, it was breathtaking, unlike anything anyone had seen before.

In 1989, New Order's video for "Round & Round" anticipated Monáe's video a little more closely: directed by Paula Grief, it shows 13 women in bare-shouldered black-and-white close-up, with split-second cut-ins of brightly colored images. (There's an alternate version of the video known as the "Patty" edit, where the only woman we see is model Patty de Silva.) "Round & Round" is one of the fastest, highest-energy songs in New Order's repertoire, and the video's stroke of genius is to let the music itself carry all that energy, while the models simply look at the camera, or away from it, or talk inaudibly, rather than reacting to the song. The flashes of color are a verfremdungseffekt of their own, breaking the spell of beautiful young women staring at the viewer and putting quotation marks around the manipulative power of beauty.

Sinéad O'Connor put her face into even tighter, Monáe-esque close-up for John Maybury's 1990 video for her breakthrough single "Nothing Compares 2 U." (Her shoulders are covered, though: she's wearing a black turtleneck that blends into the background, making it seem like her close-cropped head is all there is in the world.) "Nothing can stop these lonely tears from falling," she sings, and sure enough, a minute before the end of the video, a tear creeps down her right cheek.

The actors of all genders and ethnicities in the final minute of Michael Jackson's 1991 "Black or White" video are much happier-looking. As with the "Cry" video, each one transforms into the next as they lip-synch the song, but this time their features magically morph into one another—no crossfades here, but digital magic. Their shoulders are bared once again, although a cutaway to the final woman in the video studio, Brechtianly revealing the formal apparatus around the performance, shows us that she's wearing a strapless top, and shame on us for thinking otherwise! "Cut," the actor playing director John Landis says, and then: "That was perfect. How do you do that?"

Janelle Monáe knows the answer: the whole point of the science fiction opus from which "Cold War" is excerpted is metamorphosis, digital super-reality, self-transformation. The unadorned, "real" entity we see in the video might be her, or it might be her persona Cindi Mayweather, or something else altogether. Don't let the tear fool you.