Britney, Beyoncé, & Foster the People's Guide to Your Post-Apocalyptic Future
As the debt ceiling languishes unraised, whole regions of the US lie under floodwaters while others dry into baked earth, and the wedding cake topper industry finds itself facing major overhauls, people naturally want to know: What are music videos doing to reflect these radically shifting, changing times?
A group of angry apocakids from the video for Foster the People's "Helena Beat" (Sony Music)
Perhaps the last popular art form to remain willfully, artistically obscure, music videos in the last couple years--thanks to YouTube and now, VEVO--have re-emerged as a cultural barometer, rather than just the bling culture barometer they had largely become around the time of TRL's last days. In the last few months, a spate of videos with post-apocalypse flair and survivalist chic have been released, a mini canon contending with how disruptive our current times feel, how insurmountable and globally consuming the issues of our day seem, and how hard it can be to imagine a sunny outcome. That the videos' interpretations of armageddon range from pop schlock dance-offs to we've-been-here-before verité only demonstrates the fertility of the form, its elastic athleticism at the forefront of cultural articulation.
A tribe of dirt-smudged kids, lying somewhere between Lord of the Flies nu ravers and refugees from a Halloween superstore explosion systematically capture the band members. These warlords go on to smack the living hair product out of the band, push burning furniture off ledges within their eyesight, smash their van and instruments, and even lightly haze them by wheeling them through a tower of Styrofoam blocks. Whatever the depravity of these acts, the children of the shitty future are angry, at grown-ups specifically.
A final set piece sees funky mask/helmets stuck onto the heads of Mark Foster and a heretofore-unseen old man. A large amount of lightning transmutes Foster into a kid and the old man into ... an older man, while the tribal children sing on. Somewhere in the slightly dizzy math of that ending seems to be a feeling. It might be that, in this world on the brink, we're both the adults that have brought us to this point and the kids that feel overwhelmed at having inherited it. It might also be that old people are a nice visual balance to young people, or even something else entirely.
Seret's video reminds us that times have felt simultaneously flush and very hard before, and that folks have looked to entirely escape those pressures in recent memory. The prosaic alternative practices of the early 21st century--recycling, hybrid cars, meat substitutes, urban homesteading and buying the same products with new green labels--have trickled up from the back-to-the-landers, co-ops, communes and People's Temples of the '70s, more easily consumable ways of re-inventing our lives. Cults' presence among the Temple, smiling and singing along, pays tribute to how truly those people were like us, how deeply they wanted to find a new way, and mourns in the shadow of the idea that to fix our world, we must leave it.
But who are we kidding? "Helena Beat" and "Go Outside" have 350,000 views between them, a number which will grow but probably not approach the 243 million views shared by the more fun and fashionable adherents of doomsday-as-aesthetic: Beyoncé, Britney and, sharing the same sentence clause, LMFAO.
It's hard to resist feeling like the single has been less than successful not only because it so poorly speaks for the half of the world it purports to empower, but also because it has such a fraught relationship with co-optation and paying lip service to ideas, rather than creating anew. The video doubles down on that by adding on layers of primitivism and exoticism. Throw in ladies rolling around in the dirt for good measure.
In a world weighed down by the complexities of all the voices that we need to be better at hearing, "Run the World" is a master class in the enduringly unimaginative traditions that pop can, unfortunately, uphold.