What’s With Flares in Music Videos?

About a week ago on this blog, Nyusha explored the artwork of Mona Hatoum. She concludes that the piece in question, “is bound in power relations, discourses created by power and disseminated by power, and yet, it never supercedes this power. And in this vein, this power births multiple forms of resistance as well as being informed by resistance.” Nyusha here was speaking specifically to Hatoum’s engagement with the occupation of Palestine and articulation of diasporic identity. I would like to expand on Nyusha’s line of thought, though. What of cultural phenomena that guise themselves as “forms of resistance” or “subversive,” but are perhaps more in line with capitalism than they seem?

Nyusha elected to interrogate her subject with a Foucauldian analysis. Much of Foucault’s work touches on neoliberalism — a word that has carved its way into our contemporary political discourse, taking on a number of meanings. Sometimes it refers explicitly to the new efforts to liberalize market economies following the Reagan-Thatcher era. Other times it pops up in discourses about biopolitics and govermentality. Often it is a strange mixture of both. Much of it goes over my head, as I smile and nod. Many Marxists are abhorrently opposed to Foucault and the “postmodern” political trends that followed his work. In recent discussions with friends, I have been throwing the word “neoliberal” around to talk about the hyper-individuation of “our” lives and the depoliticization of the public sphere that has totally gutted prospects for an organized Left. It is not an uncommon complaint in Marxist circles. “The Left is dead,” I cry and then Evelyn reminds me of Walter Benjamin and what he had to say about Left Melancholy.

Ultimately, here I am not interested in debating which analytic and philosophical traditions offer the most value to “the” Left. Rather, I would like to briefly point to a contemporary musical trend that I will vaguely label “neoliberal.” Robin James dissects certain contemporary musical trends similar to the ones I am focusing on that she marks as neoliberal in an article on the New Inquiry. After arguing that contemporary Electronic Dance Music (EDM) represents a neoliberal distribution of safe risk to privileged groups in society by co-opting alterity — be it from misappropriation of Othered cultures or misrepresenting oneself as living precariously — she asks, “How, then, do you resist it?” I would argue that what James describes represents a certain type of “visage of resistance.” For example, Diplo’s foray into dancehall, bhangra, and reggaeton affects an alterity that poses itself as diverging from the norm, while still relying on what are ultimately racist or Orientalist tropes. This is what makes what she asks complicated — what is resistance to alleged resistance?

Similarly to what I have described above, I would like to present another phenomenon that I think is within the same family, but perhaps diverges from the broader project put forward by James if I understand it correctly. I have actually been thinking about this for some time, it is not difficult to notice in pop culture. This trend takes on the angst of contemporary life; it critiques alienation and often uses fashion that muddies heteronormative paradigms. What is lacking, in my view, and what makes the supposed critique it puts forward available and acceptable to contemporary capitalism is that it focuses on individually being “fed up.” It suppresses and rejects collectivism, then latches onto individual aestheticism and isolated expressions of rage that “subvert” the monotony, conformism, alienation, and repression of greater society. In a cruel twist that has been documented almost ad nauseum, capitalism sells us hatred of capitalism.

In the end, I may have just written this because I wanted to share some music that I happen to like even if  I found myself thinking, “My God! Pure Ideology!” Here are some examples below:

We enter an abandoned, torn up building in neoliberal Greece as a group of disgruntled youth who have named their band “MOAN” sing about a rebellious rockstar-style love. Whiskey, drugs, vamps, crooked smiles, and razors find their way into an alternative Greek music scene as the country trembles with what are frequently described as war-like conditions. Hospitals and schools shut down en masse as unemployment, HIV-infections, trafficking of children and women, and so on and so forth skyrocket. Business as usual. They upload their first video to YouTube and the view count explodes when it is featured on the front page of The Pirate Bay where people go to torrent episodes of episodes Sherlock and pre-DVD recordings of The Lego Movie.

Somewhere presumably in New York, a Tehran-to-Brooklyn band plays with the dystopian boredom of suburban America a little more than a year before two members of The Yellow Dogs are tragically gunned down in a highly-publicized murder-suicide by Raefe Akhbar, “another musician with close ties to the band.” The video’s cast conquers their middle-American nightmare by lighting flares, carrying torches, smashing balloons, and tossing rocks.

and all kinds of medications 
not working for our nation
we rather sit back
and see how it goes
watching the bastards
turn to shadows”

Grimes and her entourage carry heavy weaponry as they traverse the desert in a luxury Cadillac SUV. Brooke Candy pops, locks, and swings her braided pink extensions while she is clad in some form of bionic, metallic body armor. Candy’s affected, cyber-hood aesthetic is matched by Grimes’ pseudo-dreads and soft voguing topped off with a flat-brimmed cap that reads “PUSSY” in bold, while another hat seems to read “QUEER.” The posse stomps and struts down the cleanly paved roads of Los Angeles, lined with meticulously planted palm trees, disturbing the peace and disrupting monotony. More flares.

With perhaps a little more funding and a smidgen more notoriety, the eponymous Rihanna finds love in a hopeless place. She and Dudley O’Shaughnessy hop from table to table in a fast food restaurant, smoke at least a dozen cigarettes simultaneously as he breathes smoke into her pursed lips, and make out in the mud as a wild group of miscreants fist pump to EDM. O’Shaughnessy tattoos her ass “MINE” on a couch in their shitty apartment in what seems to be their mutual drug-induced madness. The beat picks up again, everything goes wild, we watch another pupil dilate, the romance ends and Rihanna closes the door after finding her lover curled up on the ground. Were there flares in this video too? I cannot remember.

P.S. Also worth exploring is the recent trend in music videos that mimic anarchist and other unorganized, sporadic forms of clashes with the police or State more generally following the various recent global mass protests that can be seen off the top of my head in the likes of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” Beyoncé and Frank Ocean’s “Superpower,” as well as Azealia Banks’ “Yung Rapunxel,” although I am sure there are many other examples worth mentioning that I am unaware of. Even Lady Gaga clashes with a corporate elite in “G.U.Y. – An ARTPOP Film.”


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