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On Music Videos And Millennial Storytelling
Sufjan Stevens' latest music video is striking, sexual, and compelling. Lil Nas X's is striking, all the more given the moral panic. What gives a music video its life force?
The first music video I remember with striking clarity is Abhijit Sawant’s Junoon in 2007, fresh off the success of the first ever season of Indian Idol (now at 12 seasons, including 2 spinoff seasons of Indian Idol Junior), where I was rooting for his toothy grin and partially bleached hair, if not his lush, limited vocal range that he milked with such efficiency, it almost came across as versatility.
The video was set in a grey-scaled desert, aided by Sawant’s grey coat and stole on his white shirt, while his elusive lover showed her face with mysterious expressions, dropping a guitar onto the sand for no discernable reason, also dressed in metallic hues. The sand looked white, and the blues of the sky was so pulled back, it almost looked like you were looking at the empty summer sky from behind the Dubai metro window which tinted light differently.
Every time the music video showed up on Channel V or MTV I would be transfixed. It was so simple, like a colour corrected spiritual child of Lucky Ali’s O Sanam, also set in a desert, but golden this time. It didn’t say or show anything profound. I tried to explain the allure of the song to my elder brother by singing the refrain to him — which was just the word ‘Junoon’, meaning passion, repeated 14 times over the course of two lines. He was unmoved, by the one word, or by Amit Trivedi’s composition. I left it at that — perhaps my first brush with being unable to transfer enthusiasm through verbal osmosis. I was what, 10 years old? The world, I realized, sees beauty differently.
This desert aesthetic kept coming up over the years but mostly in music montages of movies — the Las Vegas sparse vegetation in Hairat which also had Lucky Ali’s sufi-sandpaper vocals, Katrina Kaif’s rani pink sari in Teri Ore, Tabu inhabiting MF Hussain’s cubist structure and simplicity in Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, Aishwarya Rai as a stoic-sexual pharaoh in Poovukkul.
Each time, the desert produced an excuse to play with colour — by radically juxtaposing the brightest colours, creating awe, or by pulling them back entirely, creating unsettling nostalgia. The music video, a short escapade in movies, or in cases of music albums, the entire movie itself, produced that liminal space to express feeling, without being tied to narrative pressure; you don’t have to tell a story if you are, by visual articulation, able to inhabit its emotions. But of course, some people wanted to tell stories.
Broadly speaking, I can think of a neat way to think of music videos as either telling a story or inhabiting a feeling.
The narrative based ones are the ones where the characters in the music video begin and end in different emotional states. Dar Gai does this the best, infusing this desire to tell simple stories through music with her signature quirk, whether it is turning Ritviz’s Sage, a perky, yearning Hindustani-classical-pop into a love story between two people, who literally, cannot see eye-to-eye because of their height difference, or in the disorienting uncertainty of the first morning post-marriage in Ritviz’s oddly named Liggi, or more devastatingly, her rendering of toxic-passionate-boomerang-love through lemon tarts in Prateek Kuhad’s Cold/Mess. I spent heavy evenings watching the video while my room-mate spooned me like a baby, the cigarette smoke settling on the freshly painted walls of the new building we had just moved into. The song, and the contextualizing video made me mourn a love that didn’t even exist, it was that good — the power of a good music video. (Divya Khosla Kumar and T-Series single-handedly brought doom to this, making emotionally sterile stories with excuses to dunk one’s butt to the ground in choreographed bewilderment. This is, of course, a symptom of the music itself which stems from a desire to recycle a formula.)
The music videos that are content with merely inhabiting a feeling without any need to tell a story to evoke that feeling are the kind of videos I am seeking out these days. It’s also the kind of novels I am seeking out these days, without characters doing things that lend easily to plot, best described by the author Brandon Tyler as the following.
Character vapor. What matters are the vibes. Reading a Millennial Novel feels like listening to songs from your middle school dance on Spotify. The emotional recall is intense. Immediate.
This is radical in a very primal way. Karen Armstrong, the ex-nun who studies world mythology with a rose tinted magnifying glass notes the first impetus to tell stories was seeing the vast unexplainable world — imagine seeing the sky and the sea, endless to our vision. Thus came the sky and the sea gods with their related mythological stories that travel. When humans began agriculture, it was truly a revolution — that you could suffocate a seed deep in the mud and just by watering it sufficiently, it gave us back food, and that by cutting dying branches, it grows again, fresher, better. Humans, creating myths to make sense of death were now suddenly confronted with the possibility of rebirth, renewal. The mother goddess myth came about, because the only other person they knew who were able to produce something out of the nothing were mothers, through their womb. Stories were made specific, with plots, and plot swerves to explain mysteries. And now, after millennia of theology, philosophy, and science explaining these same mysteries, we have turned inward in the stories we are telling. Thus, the millennial novel, like Sally Rooney’s, like Garth Greenwell’s, is that very impulse. To do with our messy heart what millennia ago, people were doing staring at a vast blue blanket above their heads that sometimes looked blank, sometimes spat water at them, sometimes cracked with magnesium white flashes and screeched at us, and at others snow, or pellets of ice. But these new kinds of stories need new kinds of grammar. The grammar of interiority, where things are not final, never final, and contradiction is a state of being.
It’s best epitomized in the music video for Sufjan Stevens’ Tell Me You Love Me, directed by Call Me By Your Name fame director Luca Guadagnino. When the video came out people were confused, but I was in a trance — a yearning for the physical touch, that pristine high of good sex, and the desperation for stillness.
The music video begins with people contorting their bodies in a snow-white nothingness where you cannot differentiate floors from walls from ceilings; the kinds of contortions we do to make sex work. The contortions are inspired by Alessio Bolzoni’s photographs. Over the course of the video, clothes fall off, and the contortions have company, till the final moments when skin actually touches. In between there are retro flashes of disco lights, and fresh white snow treaded by an animal. Guadagnino described the video as, “The aching feeling of loving and wanting to be loved, the mystery of bodies that clash, the uncanny aspects of nature, the sublime music poetry and voice of Sufjan.”
Then, from nowhere Celia Hempton’s paintings (below) appear in the music video, and like the Georgia OKeeffe swirls of colour that I had suddenly been hypnotized by in the beginning of the lockdown, my eyes were swirling again — that feeling of being totally lost, and totally under control, and totally calm.
But this feeling that the video inhabits need not just be romantic, it could be a trippy ecstasy like Tunak Tun or even political. When Enjoy Enjaami, currently at 100 million views, came out, my jaw was on the floor, and thank god for my part-time day job where, sometimes, just sometimes, I get to write and think through the awe we feel collectively, again, only sometimes, as a civilization.
The holy trifecta, the g-spot of music videos goes something like this — a banger of a song, a video aesthetic of precision and awe, and a swirl of meaning and subtext. When it comes together, like the recently released, readily viral Enjoy Enjaami, it’s a chef’s kiss…
The song has a kind of narrative storytelling, similar to Tamil’s Sangam Thinai poetry, where character and thus feeling is reflected in and thus subservient to nature and the landscape.
But like everything, popular culture can flip goodness on its tummy and fuck it till it bleeds dry. We now have the music videos of random people, sometimes Tiger Shroff, dancing in sadness or interchangeably, euphoria, to the subservient beat, and it works charms with the YouTube algorithm— as long as the beat hammers home. A lot of this comes from T-Series, competing with PewDiePie, and Dharma 2.0, the “youth” wing of Dharma, the premier factory of Indian feel-good cinema, and other musicians who are trying to make a digital mark outside of cinema. It’s aspirational mediocrity.
I was drawn to think more critically about music videos after the moral panic post Lil Nas X’s lil’ dalliance with the devil in Montero (Call Me By Your Name), which like the snakes and snaking perspective of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP, was fun to watch, more so given the context of the pushback. I loved how Lil Nas X’s pole dance routine to the dungeons of hell caused such an uproar; I loved how Ben Shapiro was reading WAP’s lyrics saying P-word instead of Pussy. It’s the kind of allure that is mostly, if not entirely, derived from its sharp reception. They are fine videos with great recall value, and striking imagery. Lil Nas X is what, 21? At that age, I could barely say out loud how gay I feel, forget having the core strength to seduce the devil.
But the truth is, they did make me ask the question — what makes something visually compelling, and not just visually luxuriant, or striking. It’s certainly not just the fact that we are looking for narrative stories. Atlantis showing for a few days on the DIFF website is a stunning post-apocalyptic film, set in Eastern Ukraine in 2025, when the war is over, the water is polluted, the earth is pockmarked with land-mines and bombs, and to live is synonymous with to survive. For most of the film the camera is still, and the long scenes play out. The visuals are not just striking in the colour palette and motions, but just… it’s like being in a house and wanting to stay longer staring at every little painting and every framed photograph that adorns the walls. It’s like watching Cold War or Court or The Disciple. It’s not that all houses don’t have photographs and paintings. It’s just that some do it with such a life-force that even as you are in the thrall of its details, you are aware that a life is being lived. I use “life-force” vaguely, because it is a vague thing that cannot be conjured by planning. But it is deeply important, especially for visual cinema, because details have a way of easily becoming anesthetic distractions — beautiful, meaning making in their limited context, but at best, an embellishment.