There is a new destabilizing trend in YouTubeLand called 'literal video" or "Literal [name of rock video or movie here]." It's a form of satire that seems to work best with the more inflated, '80s or '90s pop-rock videos, the ones that were developed as little storytelling movies, even though the "movies" had little to do with the song itself or seemed patently pretentious, with or without the song. In short, there's a profound disjuncture among the posturing twit-lead singer, what he's supposedly singing about and what's going on all around him. As they used to say about political photo-ops: It doesn't matter what the candidate is saying, it's the background he's in front of and how he looks, an approach that reached its nadir with the infamous 2002 President-Bush-on-Mt.-Rushmore photo op (typically -- and now with painful irony -- no one remembers the actual occasion, which was his speech on "homeland and economic security.")

The "literal videomakers," notably DustoMcNeato and KeithFK, narrow the yawning chasm of images-vs.-song lyrics-vs.-celebrity persona by simply inserting their own lyrics, which flatly reiterate or question whatever is happening onscreen. Thus, in McNeato's version of Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels," lead singer Curt Smith poses the questions that would go through any viewer's head when watching the wildly wacky events happening in this oh-so-typically surreal library: "What's happening with that monkey? What is with this gas mask?" (Personal favorite: When Smith points to his head and sings, "Like my mullet?")

Or in this version of "Under the Bridge" performed by the eminently mockable Red Hot Chili Peppers: Anthony Keidis, like some brain-dead video editor (a plausible role), repeatedly tells the video what to do: "Now superimpose on me/Someone's ugly house/There's no front lawn/Just a pile of dirt/Will you ever cut away/From this boring shot?"

This approach repeatedly calls attention to (and calls into question) the video's image choices, making them appear laughably random. Or it subverts any greater, intended import they might have by flatly describing the images and thus "grounding" or re-contextualizing them in a more self-consciously 'down-to-earth' manner,while actually presenting a wise-ass commentary on them. Perhaps the most elaborately self-conscious music video, one terrifically realized by McNeato, is A-ha's "Take On Me," with its comic book Speed Racer animation, its through-the-looking-glass fantasy and its pop 'ironic' Hollywood movie storyline (Favorite lyrics: "Band montage!" and the chorus singing, "Pipe wrench fight.") 

About the only trick McNeato misses is commenting on the final sequence -- it's a direct steal from the ending of the 1980 Ken Russell film Altered States.

Thought of another way, the literal videomakers have removed the chatty robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 and let the music video inhabitants comment on their own ridiculousness themselves. As book/daddy noted in his intro to this discussion, '80s/'90s rock videos with overarching narratives and artsy cinematic intentions seem the best target for "literal video' mockery. Or so he thought until he saw the following by KeithFK, which takes a relatively simple U2 video shot in Vegas for the song, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "deconstructs" (there, I said it) the image selection with deadpan observations: "Wag my finger, spread my arms out, look at me, I'm pulling my sleeve up, I'm touching Edge's bum ... Pony tail, Edge again, swirly neon." (Favorite lyric: "Random woman. My wife will kill me."

book/daddy believes the British term for all this is "taking the piss."

This entire book/daddy post got written up in Crooked Timber. But then book/daddy discovered that Dustin McLean (the 'real' DustoMcNeato) had already been written up in Rolling Stone, for pete's sake. Take heart, though. You can now buy "Pipe Wrench Fight" on a t-shirt or mousepad. 

Many thanks to Anne Bothwell and Steve Becker.
November 3, 2008 1:23 PM |



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