January 5, 2011


You Can't Do That on Television

Last week, the full (if unfinished) video for Kanye’s West single “Monster” leaked (NSFW) , and immediately trumped any cries for attention Yeezy has made the past year. The stylishly sanguineous clip features scantily clad women decapitated, dangling from the ceiling by their necks, and lying lifelessly on beds. (West recruited Jake Nava to bring to life his dark twisted fantasy—Nava being the zeitgeist-steering man behind Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “Crazy in Love.”)

It is transparently disturbing in a way West has never provoked us, prompting women’s groups to question its intent. Yet as a gesture to remind us of Kanye's pop-cultural relevance, it borders on genius. Lest you doubt its reach, there are already a couple of Muppets parodies of it.

Although a more middle-aged generation continues to lament the disappearance of cable and local shows devoted solely to music videos, we’re actually witnessing a renaissance of sorts when it comes to the medium: the emergence of artfully provocative clips that would never see the light of day on the music television of yore. Whether this is good art or bad art is up for debate, but reactions are knee-jerk and viral.

In the past, videos were censored or given very limited airplay because they were too sexual (Madonna’s “Justify My Love”), druggy (Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up”), violent (Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”), potty-mouthed (N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”), or satirical, and thus litigious (Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You”). Then, a banned video was often considered pioneering and could stir amazing reactions: “Justify My Love” was parodied onSaturday Night Live. “Smack My Bitch Up” leveraged that controversy to become a huge international hit. “99 Problems” won a Grammy. “Straight Outta Compton” earned N.W.A crossover appeal. And “This Note’s for You” took MTV’s Video of the Year.

Nowadays, the concept of a “banned video” is dubious. It’s virtually impossible for anyone to put the kibosh on material deemed offensive, what with fans eagerly showcasing any embattled artwork on YouTube or Vimeo or Dailymotion—sometimes even before it’s technically embattled. Still, there is buzz in pushing the envelope. Indie acts have been quite prodigious in exercising their NSFW outré artistry, be it Salem’s “Dirt,” about an unsettling crack trip, ” Major Lazer’s dry-humping extravaganza “Pon De Floor” (a product of the goofy mind of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!’s Eric Wareheim), Girls’ X-rated “Lust for Life,” or Justice’s racially charged “Stress.”

This renegade bid for attention has gotten increasingly more mainstream. Roman Gavras, who directed “Stress,” would go on to be the creative mind behind M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” a social allegory about the extermination of redheads. The aforementioned Wareheim made an absurdly amorous clip for Depeche Mode’s absurdly amorous “Hole to Feed.” And 30 Seconds to Mars’ Jared Leto helmed his band’s S&M-happy “Hurricane” clip. Each earned a healthy dose of blog curiosity for their troubles. And as we’ve learned from West—that great aggregator of talent and trend—the ability to at once provoke and stimulate is fast becoming a talent unto itself.