Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Meditations: Childhood Innocence in the Music Video Era

Christmas is a time to reflect on authenticity and obligation, especially when it comes to issues of maturity and disillusionment. It's an inescapable question... it's safe to say that anyone who knows the experience of the Christian holiday also knows how much it changes when you enter adulthood. Santa Clause leads the way for a loss of innocence, and over the course of a few landmark years, we stop seeing Christmas as a singular, mystical time and start to see it as a confusing mix of familial love and troublesome economic and social obligation. If any of you are like me, you probably spend a large part of the holiday searching within yourself for that excited, innocent child who could just enjoy the bright colors and ritualistic songs, and who could just indulge in attention and wish-fulfillment.

So here I am, looking into pop culture for some statements on the shifting winds of innocence and disillusionment. Interestingly, I've found the most salient themes during my diversion into the world of music video.

Sigur Ros's recent music video for the song Hoppipolla is a great example. Before you even think about the social statement it makes, try just watching it and feeling the spirit of the piece. It's simple and beautiful and thematically cryptic, but it represents something spontaneous and touching. It's a brilliant piece of short-form cinema, crafted around an excellent song.



Like I said, thematically cryptic: one of the beautiful aspects of this video is that it doesn't seem to be purveying a judgment or advocating any reform. If anything, it's an invitation to the viewer to imagine an entire life lived as a child, or at the very least, a final return to the joys of childhood at the twilight of old age.

Thus, there's something in this video calling us out of the severity of middle age, showing us the triumph of experience extracted from the prisons of ambition and self-consciousness. It's even making me ashamed to be writing about it this way... this essay is such a trite rationalization of a video that amounts to a siren's song of spontaneity and humanity. I have to write about the video, when I'd rather be creating it, or (better yet) simply living it.

But it leads me to consider another video that makes a complex statement on maturity and self-seriousness, but from a different direction. Take a look at B.I.G.'s video for Sky's the Limit:



Directed, of course, by the indomitable Spike Jones, it takes a simple casting quirk and turns it into a strange experience with traces of a complex statement on maturity within a music genre. Jonze's deadpan strangeness gives the video a different flavor than the Sigur Ros piece, and (as appropriate to the music) it's a less beautiful and more conflicted piece.

Jonze manages to bring a sense of tension to this video that makes it hard to read as message-bearing communication. We often envision rap as a posturing, inflationary cultural complex, proud but fraught with negativity. Granted, I'm speaking as a pretentious indie kid, the demographic that Jonze's videos normally appeal to, rather than as a street kid, the demographic that Biggie's music targets. Still, the very fact that Jonze directed this video... such a departure from his other source material, like Weezer and Fatboy Slim... opens up this contradiction in the first place.

Sky's the Limit is saying that beneath rap's posturing, there's something childlike. You can read this as a compliment or as a critique... are these children acting out this scenario because hip-hop is playful and spontaneous? This is a natural reading if you consider the tone of the music, which is generally reassuring. After all, [the] Sky is the limit and you know that you can have what you want, be what you want. Then again, if it makes you uncomfortable to see children in big bling, buying entirely into a decadent lifestyle of fast cars and easy women, you might see something different. Maybe the kids represent the immaturity of the rap scene, which (arguably) has spent the last ten years replacing defiance and strength of character with glamour and self-praise.

So is it about finding the past within the present? Or is it about losing the past through a painful process of disillusionment? It's hard to say... and that's what makes it a great video. Spike Jonze knows ambiguity, perhaps more than any other short-form director, and he's fully harnessed it here.

Whether you're grasping at the past or interrogating the present, whether you're searching for the sublime or for the naivety of your youth, this Christmas is probably a time to think about who you were and who you're becoming. These music videos offer one small take on an enormous question that we all have to keep asking... even knowing that we probably won't be finding an answer any time soon.

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