Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Some thoughts on the representation of race in music videos

We had an interesting blog topic in my American Studies module this week:  discuss a video of music from the 1980s which you consider represents the issue of race during the period AND a video from today which you consider will represent the contemporary thirty years from now.  Here are my selected videos...

James Brown, Living in America, 1985
This 1985 track by James Brown is an obvious choice to represent eighties American culture through music videos. The song certainly appears to be a celebration of all that America was at that time, as indicated by the very first image we see in the music video – a full three seconds of huge fireworks designed to show us that living in America appears to be one big celebration.
At the start of the song Brown references the notion that America is a place where anything is possible, the place where dreams can come true, ‘there’s no destination too far’, he sings metaphorically about the superhighways, and the place where self-discovery is possible, almost without even trying, ‘somewhere on the way you might find out who you are.’  Whilst hearing these lyrics we see a selection of images that are clearly chosen to represent America’s greatness; the first image is the New York skyline with the WTC buildings standing tall in the centre of the screen.  Next we see an extensive farmland with two shiny grain silos, cleverly offering an agrarian reflection of the NYC skyline and its two tall shiny towers. The video then shows a series of images which are cut into each other at super-speed, giving a real sense of life whizzing by. These images include day and night stills of American cities, and the depiction of the busy-ness of everyday life.  To really emphasise the intensity and speed, Brown uses sped-up films of people going about their everyday lives, for example, using the subway, eating in diners and driving on super-highways.  In amongst these shots are intermittent cuts to Brown’s band and dancers, and because the song featured in the movie, Rocky IV, the video also includes cuts to scenes from the movie.
As this video progresses, the sped-up scenes begin to include increasingly repetitive aspects of daily life such as people clocking into and out of a factory, a massive IT suite with very many white collar workers, several production lines and workers in the stock market, again all broken up by images of very shiny American cities.
The movie, Rocky IV is a deeply patriotic tale of boxer Rocky Balboa’s heroic finding of himself through his love of America and disdain for USSR and Brown’s lyrics and video certainly walk us through a whistle-stop tour of all that is great about the super shiny ‘Promised Land’. However, underneath the glitzy veneer is a country where, to use Brown’s own lyrics, ‘you might have to walk a fine line’ because ‘everybody’s working overtime’.  The suggestion here is that America may not be the Promised Land that it appears on the surface.  Brown even alludes to the eighties trend of using drugs to manage the long working hours and heavy demands of eighties culture, referring to ‘the hard roll’ and ‘the hard line’.  The super-fast speed of the video is perhaps also designed to invoke a sense of the effect of drug use.
It is interesting that the vast majority of Brown’s performers are black. Somehow this only serves to make the erroneous nature of this representation of America even more apparent, and it would seem that this has been deliberate on Brown’s part as throughout the whole video, only one of the scenes depicting daily life features a single black person. Given the history of blacks in America and the systemic racism that exists even now, and which was entirely more overt in the 1980s, it could be presumed that Brown was making a statement about the colour line through this depiction of ‘white’ America which is ultimately linked to progression and the growth of industry and the city, versus ‘black’ America, which has music in its soul and is therefore somehow more real and truthful, indeed, more soulful.
The live performance by James Brown which forms the last part of the video in particular, is a spectacularly glitzy and patriotic show of American greatness that is clearly designed (as indicated by the presence of a boxing ring complete with Russian boxer) to speak to the Rocky movie.  Every inch of the massive stage is covered either by red, white and blue, or by gold, and the Star Spangled Banner is draped across a backdrop of gold lights that form the presidential seal.  Vast numbers of dancers in flag-based costumes adorn the stage and the overall effect is really one big party.
In spite of the seemingly celebratory nature of this song, Brown is really making some wounding comments about America, which are beautifully reflected by the use of the 1980s image of New York. Somehow, the fact that the twin towers have been used in this video to illustrate America’s greatness truly highlights the degree to which this is a distorted representation of what America was during the 1980s.  Watching the video post 9/11 the audience is acutely aware that the beautiful NYC skyline can be brought crumbling to its knees in less than an hour, showing just how vulnerable America really is, and that with little penetration beyond the initial veneer, the notions and ideas we might have about America’s greatness will literally collapse.

Beyonce, Formation, 2016
Systemic racism in western culture is so deeply embedded in the foundations of our existence that I believe it is highly unlikely that it will have been even fully addressed let alone eradicated by 2046.  When a student of 2046 is asked to identify a video which represents American life thirty years ago, it is likely that Beyonce’s Formation video will be used as a depiction of how, in 2016, celebrity was working hard to take a stand against institutionalised racism and police brutality.
Indeed, despite the very contemporary style of her video, Beyonce is drawing on many historical influences including the female Black Panthers, a group which exitsted throughout the 1970s and early 1980s to take a stand against police brutality and promote black liberation, and the female sex workers of Storyville, a district of New Orleans that legalised prostitution during the early 1900s and where women of all races were employed.  Both of these influences are clearly apparent through Beyonce’s choice of costumes for herself and her dancers.
The video begins with Beyonce standing on the roof of a police vehicle which is slowly being submerged under water during severe floods, while the lyrics tell us that this action is happening in New Orleans.  And while Beyonce celebrates her black heritage with lyrics which might be described as both assertive and proud, she also calls upon her fellow black women to ‘get in formation’ and presumably to follow her as she ‘slays’ white supremacy.  Meanwhile, as she dances on the police car roof, the vehicle sinks under the water, and one would hope, taking institutionalised racism and police brutality with it.
I would expect that the student of the future will also want to consider the implications of Beyonce releasing this video on Superbowl weekend 2016, and her performance of the song during half time, and to debate whether in performing her song at such an event, a song that so clearly addresses other women, was an implied statement to women to take a stand against sexism also.  There are other significant discussions to be had around Beyonce’s choice of release for this song.  Known for her support of a social justice group called Black Lives Matter, Beyonce performance also coincided with what would have been the 21st birthday of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in 2012.  The killer was acquitted in 2013.
I hope that thirty years from now this video represents the idea that ‘the past as foreign country, they do things differently there.’
Finally, to enjoy a serious point being made in a comedic way, the future student might like to watch this...