What girl power message? - Music videos are essentially advertising, but the clip for Katy Perry’s California Gurls, top of the Australian charts, is the most cynical bid for market dominance I’ve seen in some time. It’s a video underpinned by a marketing logic common to both soft porn and sugary food, where pleasure is a naughty indulgence in which a woman’s role is to facilitate the enjoyment of others. In food commercials, women nibble chocolate or lick fingers smeared in whipped cream, smiling coyly for the camera. They are not eating for their own satisfaction — god forbid, that might make them fat — but to illustrate a correctly feminine mode of desire: proportional, demure, and always conscious of its own appearance.
What I find especially irritating about California Gurls is its eagerness to illustrate this lesson to young girls, who form a large segment of the viewing audience of music videos. If I were five years old I’d be mesmerised by California Gurls: ice cream, gummy bears, giant gingerbread houses, fairy floss clouds. It illustrates, very powerfully, a fantasy of endless oral gratification that young children are psychologically in thrall to; a fantasy that advertising works to exploit in a highly gendered way. Women and girls — and girls learn this very fast — are not allowed food. They become food, a delectable display for others, as is Perry and her troop in their cupcake bikinis.
Yet it serves little purpose to be moralistic, and to wish that girls could have their innocence preserved while watching Video Hits. If California Gurls proves anything, it’s that ‘‘innocence’’ is a profitable advertising notion, pink and shiny as the inside of Barbie’s dream home.
Katy Perry performs California Gurls at the MTV Movie Awards. Photo: Reuters
Perry’s elaborate, colourful candyland is also evidence of another industry truth: the continued importance of the ‘‘event video’’ to a popular artist’s commercial success. The event video is the cinematic blockbuster of music clips. It can propel an artist from mid-ranking to megastar.
MTV royalty Michael Jackson and Madonna created event video in the 1980s by borrowing from ‘‘Golden Age’’ Hollywood musicals such as West Side Story and Singin’ in the Rain. Elaborate choreography, high production values and an extensive supporting cast were key. The legacy of these artists is nowhere more obvious than in the work of Lady Gaga. Today’s MTV comes in the form of YouTube, and Gaga is its reigning pop queen: her two most recent videos, Alejandro and Telephone, have between them received 100 million viewings on the site.
Major record labels such as Interscope and Capitol — home to Lady Gaga and Perry, respectively — are increasingly canny about marketing their extravagant visual wares. Previews and teaser clips stoke viewer expectation, while dedicated artist’s ‘‘channels’’ create virtual fan clubs, with embedded commercials to take advantage of a captive audience. Gaga’s videos are particularly shameless in their product placement: the hefty fees paid by companies to flog their technological toys no doubt helps to offset her label’s production costs.
Beyoncé Knowles becomes “B.B. Homemaker” in Why Don't You Love Me?
The crucial money-can’t-buy-it marketing factor is word of mouth, a form of hype the web is uniquely suited to exploit, as links, tweets and Facebook ‘‘shares’’ ping around the globe. A video both high-production and high-concept invites fevered online discourse. Gaga, unblinking at controversy, uses this to her advantage, but so have other artists.
MIA’s Born Free, released three months ago in advance of her new album, achieved the rare distinction of having its accompanying video banned by YouTube for explicit violence. It’s about the only distinction this video managed, and it certainly did no harm to the buzz around it. Having disappeared from YouTube, it proliferated on any number of rival video-hosting sites.
Born Free busts several conceptual gaskets in trying to be hard-hitting, but is merely ham-fisted: it presents the viewer with a shallow visual analogy of racism — swapping the brown-skinned for the red-haired as persecuted victims — an analogy which treats racism, a complex structural prejudice, as if it was simply a phenomenon of seeing.
Beyoncé’s recent Why Don’t You Love Me? is more sophisticated in its visual reversals. In it, Beyoncé becomes “B.B. Homemaker”, an African American woman usurping the 1950s domestic kitsch of white pin-up girls.
Beyoncé, co-star of Telephone, is no stranger to the sleek event video, but Why Don’t You Love Me? is filmed on vintage Super8 stock, grainy and washed out. Its rough-edged spirit reminds me of an overlooked video pioneer, Cyndi Lauper. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun was one of the first clips to feature a multi-racial cast. It made Lauper a star, and for the comparatively modest cost of $35,000. In 1983, at age two, I adored it, and I still do. ( theage.com.au )