Monday, December 9, 2013

I Have Something to Say About the "Say Something" Video

Although I decided to sit out this season of The Voice (I'm discovering that skipping a season in between allows me to keep up with it better and care about it more) I do love me some Christina Aguilera, even though she's the Fatburger of pop divas - no better for you than any other fast food joint and you spend way more than you should, but you can't resist going in when you stumble across it. While not nearly as much as the other way around, The Voice has been good for Xtina, if just from the opportunity for that #1 single with Maroon 5. I think it was a mistake to leave The Voice to promote Lotus (if that is the real story), although I'm not sure it was as clear when the decision was made as it is now how powerful the show can be to the charts (don't forget, it's The Voice you have to thank for a summer full of "Blurred Lines"). But I've been particularly pleased with the story around "Say Something," the song by ultra-obscure indie duo A Great Big World that Aguilera has done more for than any of her contestants on the show, for a couple reasons.

First of all, "Say Something" is a really solid tune. It's no secret that thousands of solid tunes miss out on a chance for fame, but it's definitely reassuring when one does get a one-in-a-million lucky shot and is worth the acknowledgement. Secondly, I'm still jazzed about the power of The Voice in influencing the music industry, partly because the whole inter-entertainment medium relationship will make interesting fodder for a chapter in the History of Pop textbook I'm sure to write somewhere down the line. But mostly, I'm pleased with the agency Christina Aguilera has in the story (she heard it after it was used on Dancing With the Stars and asked to meet with A Great Big World to lay down a harmony track). She may have taken her lumps lately, but it's great to see she still has some sway - and that she could pull off something like this with the humility and subtlety that she has.

Given all this, it might seem like A Great Big World and Christina Aguilera have created a work of art above reproach, and we should all bow down and praise them as pop gods. Not quite. There's the matter of the single's music video (directed by Christopher Sims), which premiered a couple weeks ago. I couldn't get halfway through it without collapsing into fits of laughter. It is one hot mess.

The first minute of the video works just fine, although it does introduce the on-the-nose quality that comes to pervade the proceedings. As Ian Axel, at the piano, sings the opening verse, we see a couple lying despondently on a bed. They start facing one another; when Axel sings "I'm giving up on you," the guy looks away giving up-ily and the girl rolls over away from him, also giving up-ily. There's some water droplets in extreme close-up, and more shots of the guy having given up looking as such.

In slinks Christina from the shadows in a slim black cocktail dress looking forlorn; one hand fiddles absently with the hem as if she weren't working as hard as she is on her footwork, crossing one foot  in front of the other and a little too far, like a drunk Victoria's Secret model touching herself. She looks incredibly thin, standing in her little black dress on a mostly dark stage in front of a bed spring that probably got the part on the strength of its work in 2010's "You Lost Me," also playing a bed spring that Christina Aguilera cried in front of. (He gets typecast, but what can you do?) She doesn't know what to do with her hands, so she starts pawing at her face with one of them, I guess so she has something to build to for the climax.

Christina Aguilera
I make myself so much wetter...
Axel's silent but hot bandmate Chad Vaccarino shows up to lean dramatically against the piano, where he, oddly, says nothing. It's a little awkward, but you figure it's building to something.

Then, as AxTina (can that be a thing?) move into the next stanza, "And I am feeling so small," suddenly there's a young girl sitting in a bed. She is, in fact, rather small. "It was over my head," they continue. The girl pulls the covers over her head. There seems to be a couple shouting at one another (although they're so hard to see and on for such short moments it took me two views even to notice them. Then the girl emerges from under the covers and climbs down to the floor just in time for the lyric "Just starting to crawl." She - wait for it - crawls under the bed.

On the subsequent chorus we meet the real stars of the show: an old man (wearing an old man sweater!) and his wife, who is lying in a hospital bed (like the piano, Christina's bed spring, and literal girl's considerably fancier bed, it sits on its own on the otherwise dark stage, so this is more interpretive stage design than realism) and may or may not be dead. The old man winds up cuddled on the hospital bed next to her, cradling her face, and in a deadly close-up shot he makes this face.

Sad Grandpa
...Was that my cue?
By the time you're done ugly-crying, Christina has made it over to the piano and found a great pose that lets her do something with that left arm and jut her hip out enough that we can see she's still got curves and that they look good. Chatty Chad is standing against the other side of the piano behind her where he can continue to look hot and moody and at Xtina's ass as needed. The sad old man has recovered and blows a kiss to the old woman (who I'm pretty sure is dead) at the line "And I'm saying goodbye." The giving up-y woman from the first couple splashes herself with water (aha!), and the girl is under the bed, staring down a dog. AxTina barrel through the climactic chorus, during which Christina gets one brief shot looking into the camera, and she has a brief but brilliant moment where the emotion and connection between her, the song, and us is not just genuine but electrifying. A second later she has to say "Say something!" to the light fixture once again, and it's a shot I doubt even Meryl Streep could have pulled off believably. And the hot guy bangs on the piano!

Chad Vaccarino
Finally, the girl gets rescued from that dog under the bed by someone with orange nail polish, and she, the old man, and the giving up-y woman (who by now looks absolutely bangin') walk one by one across the empty stage, alone. Christina has one more shot with telltale tear streaks in her mascara, then vanishes without explanation (perhaps given up on). Finally the two male band-mates exit the stage in opposite directions, having apparently giving up on one another. The crowd, and the blogosphere, goes wild.

Except I have a few questions. Most of them sound like this: BUT WHY?!?!?

First, poor Christina...she really gets thrown under the bus. In the 2002 video for Aguilera's hit single "Beautiful," which the video quickly comes to resemble, she at least got to sit on the floor and do half her shots in tight close-up; she also got to look into the camera and connect with her subject, the audience, whereas here her gaze is directed upward, toward...God? A light fixture? It doesn't seem any clearer to her who she's singing to than it is to us, and as valiant a showcase of "sad expression" as she performs, we'd have gotten something more believable were she simply singing as herself. "Say Something" doesn't need extra visual interpretation to enhance its emotional impact; it's all there in the song.

Christina Aguilera
Love into the light fixture
Of course, "Beautiful" didn't need visual enhancement either. Jonas Akerlund populated the video with a small cast of diverse characters, and he showed how the message applied to each of them not just by their mere presence but through their respective story and emotional arcs. In doing so he and Aguilera translated the song from one about a young, famous, dubiously unpretty pop star to one about all varieties of the insecure, the so ashamed. "Say Something" is about an especially gut-wrenching end to a romance: "Say something; I'm giving up on you,"  the desperate plea of the chorus, depicts someone watching the last thread of the relationship strain and then break. The subject matter and the way it's communicated is about as universal as pop gets; that's why the song has had such strong response.

Like "Beautiful," the video for "Say Something" recruits a small cast of characters to inhabit the visual, but instead of having them represent the emotional thesis of the song, it tosses in a couple alternative narratives as well. At first that seems intriguing - "hey, this Ke$ha song could also be about a unicorn rainbow gun battle!" - especially if it can be pulled off in a mind-broadening, clever, or even just cute way (see: unicorn rainbow gun battle).

The giving up-ing couple, of course, make total sense. She represents the agency of Axel and Christina's voice. It fits. We're here for that. But consider the geriatric duo: do they really belong? They appear at the line "I'm sorry that I couldn't get to you," so, maybe, she fell down the stairs? He didn't get to her bedside before she joined the big poker game in the sky? On a molecular level, if you really wanted to apply the lyrics of "Say Something" to this man to his dying (dead?) lover, you could. Some of it would be a little odd ("And I will swallow my pride"), and most of all the main emotional refrain of "Say something; I'm giving up on you" would be a little harsh. You certainly would never write a scene like that in this way; you'd just be able to get away with it in a real pinch.

Then there's the little girl. The best reading of that character's story seems to be that she's reacting to the couple having the argument. The only lyrics that could apply to her are those two stanzas sung over her scene; the first ("And I am feeling so small, etc.") serves, in the song, to describe how the failure of the relationship is making the singer feel young, lost, and naive, and the second ("And I will stumble and fall, etc.") about how this newness to love either has, or will, or both, led the singer to make mistakes. If the girl were there to serve as a literal representation of the "child" of love the singer uses metaphorically, that would be so on-the-nose as to be amateurish and embarrassing; plus there would be no need for parents fighting. To put her in the video merely because her story and the song's story happen to overlap for one discrete segment, and not even that well, would be a baffling choice. What agency does she have in the song that's being sung and the story being told?

Small Girl Under Covers
I am feeling so small.
So why are they here? Without a reasonable alternative, I'm forced to conclude that purpose of the sad old man and the sad little girl in "Say Something" is emotional manipulation. "Say Something" is an emotionally powerful ballad, and that emotion is purely sadness. We like sadness in our music, though, especially we Americans, for all sorts of reasons. We are on the whole much more comfortable being manipulated to sadness by popular art forms than we are to being manipulated toward happiness, because sadness allows us to keep up our guard whereas happiness strips us of a certain sense of power. Sadness also sells a lot of records. And it tends to be more conducive to thoughtful, personal songwriting.

"Say Something" is very well done. It's simple, in sound and in lyricism, which makes it easily accessible and satisfying. The performances are perfect. It need not be more emotionally effective for what it is. So to tack the Sad Child and the Sad Old Man, two of the most emotionally loaded tropes in our culture, onto a video for a song in which they don't actually belong, and without making them belong, is cynical and, frankly, a little sleazy. For one thing, this video is using powerful tools that it doesn't earn. If it were a weaker song it would be one thing, but "Say Something" is a legitimately powerful and excellent piece of art on its own, and throwing in the crying old man for the easy tears (and the sales that go with it) is taking away from what Ian Axel and Christina Aguilera are doing so very well.

And no, I'm not heartless. The idea of an old man crying about losing his wife is one that would affect me as well. But because they come out of nowhere and nothing in the song gives us any way of connecting to these characters and what they're supposedly going through, I didn't see them as an old man crying about losing his wife. I saw him as an actor doing something so blatantly designed to hit certain emotional cliches and maximize the camera-friendly old man sadness visuals best tailored to eliciting the biggest reaction from the most predictably persuadable, and, as I said, it literally made me laugh out loud. I don't think that was the intended reaction, but that's what happens when you try cynically to artificially manipulate emotional response.

In fact, a lot of this video made me laugh. It has been surprisingly fun to take apart, because there is so much that's wrong with it it's almost worth loving ironically. The way it handles an obviously awkward situation in which only one of the two band-mates actually performs on this particular song (Axel had originally released it as a solo track before joining the band and releasing it on their debut album) is amusing because you know it's got to be awkward for him, just as Christina's discomfort with the ridiculous direction she seems to have been given ("Stand there and sing it up to the light fixture, love!") is clear and yet for the first time in several years she's not in a vulnerable position so you don't have to feel bad for her. I bet the three of them went out for drinks afterward talking about what a total dipshit whackjob that director had been, then bought the whole bar a round with their sales residuals.

Wait, I bet I know what happened with the little girl. She was singing the song to her puppy. (Did he bite her?) He wouldn't say something, and she gave up on him.

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