A question of swagger

No song from the first three Tris McCall albums has a music video. Jay and I made a clip for “Sugar Nobody Wants” from the fourth album, but I never publicized it, and everything about it is intentionally understated. I like it a lot — it’s footage of Jersey City and Bayonne shot from Jay’s car on Jay’s iPhone, and then spliced together afterward, and we took a memorable trip over the Outerbridge Crossing together while we made it. But there are no people in it. I think my shadow snuck in there, but my mug never did. The Replacements’ clip for “Bastards Of Young” notwithstanding, I’ve always felt a little leery about videos in which the principal songwriter didn’t appear. Especially if I didn’t know much about the artist. It’s like getting a cautiously worded letter of introduction rather than a firm handshake.

I love music video. I grew up cutting class to watch MTV, and if the TV is on in our house and I’m paying attention to it, it’s probably on BET Jams or VH1 Classic. Should you be foolish enough to ask, I can re-create the choreography in both the “Thriller” clip (representing my childhood) and Beyonce’s extended version of “Get Me Bodied” (representing my perpetually arrested adolescence). As a storytelling medium, music videos beat movies and serial television with a baseball bat. It is possible to pack all the meaning and provocation you need into three minutes and score a pop song at the same time. How can film directors, what with their biopics and tedious special effects and interminable romantic comedies and redundancy epics, ever compete with that? They can’t, I tell you. Stop calling me shallow. I may or may not have learned more from a three minute record, baby, than I ever learned in school, but I know that my conception of romance and male-female relationships was established by ZZ Top in their key-throwing clips and reinforced thereafter by Rihanna, Missy Elliott, et. al.

What impresses me most about George the Monkey’s video for “Mission To Mars”, which I hope you’ve seen by now, isn’t the elaborate set he built from scratch from antique components he purchased from collectors via eBay. It isn’t even Matt Houser’s performance as a NASA scientist, although he looks the part so precisely that I believe that there’s a parallel universe where he’s in command of a Cape Canaveral mainframe. No, what I like best is how fully he incorporated the fatalistic themes of The Well-Tempered Overlord into the clip. For instance, on “Give Up Your Dreams”, a song you might not know yet but hopefully soon will (album’s out September 9), George sings “why do you want all the things you want/what comment in what tender year shifted your drives into gear?”, and this question hovers over all of the stories on the set. This is exactly what is dramatized in the video: childhood experiences prompt the protagonist to do something that is inscrutable to everybody else but him. You can draw your own analogies to the artist’s struggle, or you can let George do it for you, on the other nine songs on the album maybe.

The point is that the music video allows the artist to deliver a concentrated emotional experience — one that’s hopefully enhanced by the song — that makes other forms of filmed entertainment seem ponderous in comparison. I’ve done a lot of talking about the way in which the webcomic improves on the storytelling experience of the book, stuck as books are with beginnings and endings that you can constantly (and boringly) orient yourself to just by checking how many pages you’ve got to go. Music video is a big improvement, too, because it cuts out all the respiration and glossy time-killing that I associate with the movies. By now, music video has its own long tradition, its own conventions, and its own set of classics — yet it feels like it’s still a fertile area for formal innovation.

All of which brings me back to my strange reluctance to pair my own songs with videos. I’d like to say I have some principled objection, or some aesthetic preference for obscurity and shadows, but I really don’t. I’m just shy. The Favorite Color, my postcollegiate band, made a few videos, and I found my face so unsightly and my bearing so unpleasant that I wanted nothing more than to destroy all the VHS evidence. Even at the time I recognized this as a kind of body dysmorphia incommensurate with showbiz ambitions, and I tried to talk myself out of it, but it never went away completely. In my twenties, I told myself that I was still filling out, so to speak, and even if I’d never get my heart’s desire, which was to look and act on camera like Whitney Houston in the “How Will I Know” clip, I figured I could still attain Jackson Browne Lawyers In Love status or something like that. Now I know better. But I’ve decided to bite the bullet anyway, indulge my love for the format, and make some videos for these new numbers I’m cooking up. Which means you’ve got to watch. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.