What can music videos still say about artists and their intent, now that the medium's so thoroughly saturated with the sticky ooze of marketing? Most are little more than sales pitches for fucking or patriotism, the two hottest-selling commodities nationwide--take for instance the slow-motion grind of pert, oiled ass in hip-hop videos and the three-and-a-half-minute "God 'n' my sweet Kentucky home" minidramas that run nonstop on Country Music Television. But it's a false purism to claim that the taint of commercialism means videos can't also send a message. Even if the song itself is little more than a marketing ploy in the first place, its video can help us establish our identities as consumers--who we are if we believe in the artist or like what the song is saying. Pink is mainstream, and the Gossip are underground, but both are feminist--what begs further discussion is the ways their new videos address it.
Pink has always played up what sets her apart from her Top 40 peers, so she can reasonably lay claim to the role of critical outsider: she's in-your-face and a touch butch, often wears her pink or bleached-blond hair boyishly short, and favors bedazzled sports bras and track pants over the "do-me" outfits young divas usually choose. Her feminism is lightweight but genuine--leading by example, she encourages girls to reject the status quo. Sometimes that just means flipping the bird and hitting the dance floor ("God Is a DJ," "Get the Party Started"), and other times it's about not getting played by nasty dudes ("Respect," "Private Show"). "Stupid Girls," the current single from her forthcoming album I'm Not Dead (LaFace), mocks and rejects subservient femininity. Pink may be a pop singer shaking her ass to sell records, but she wants us to know she's not one of them.
The video for "Stupid Girls" has been all over MTV for a couple weeks now, and does it ever pick some easy targets--among them celebutantes Mary-Kate Olsen and Paris Hilton and singer-actresses Jessica Simpson and Lindsay Lohan. It also takes on men who are hypnotized by giant tits, women who get cosmetic surgery, bulimics, girls who do the ass clap in rap videos, and women who'd rather grub for male attention than become, in Pink's words, a "girl president." Pink plays herself and every other major female role, from the video hoochie freaking 50 Cent's leg to the spray-on-tan victim to the frizzy post-bloje Hilton. With a chorus built around the lines "Maybe if I act like that / That guy will call me back," the song is a morale booster for "difficult" girls exhausted by a world that goads them to drop the self-respect and just be what men want--which in the video is established as dumb, sexy, and so stacked you can lick your own tits, porno style. Unfortunately Pink blames the women who toe the line, demonizing and dismissing the exact audience she wants to reach--the kind of catfighting the patriarchy loves.
The video is framed by shots of a pigtailed little girl watching TV. Up pops Pink, as both a guardian angel and a devil's advocate, hovering over the girl's shoulders. The TV starts to show the girl what her options are when she grows up, beginning with a clip styled as a 50s educational film on etiquette for teenage girls--it instructs them how to flip their perfect blond hair and smile guilelessly. Then we get Pink as Mary-Kate shopping for a dog small enough to fit in a purse, Pink as a driving-impaired Lindsay Lohan, Pink on a plastic surgeon's table, and a vignette about ditzy young women vomiting up their lunches, all intercut with snippets of Pink on a podium in a power suit and glasses, cast as a presidential candidate. As she sings "Outcasts and girls with ambition / That's what I want to see," the video cuts to Pink in sweatpants playing tackle football with men, gritting her teeth as she runs.
The parodies are funny, especially the one of Simpson--she slides all over a soapy car, furiously attempting to wash it and hump it at the same time, then sucks suggestively on the dirty sponge--but the antidote Pink suggests for such stupid-girl behavior is just as rooted in old-fashioned gender prescriptions as anything she's criticizing. If to be a strong woman you have to act like a man, then femininity equals weakness. The video ends with the pigtailed girl shutting off the TV in revulsion, then looking from a heap of frilly dolls to a second pile that contains a keyboard, a football, and a tiny microscope. She grabs the football and runs outside, and guardian angel Pink flashes an approving smile and disappears into the CGI mist.
Though the message of "Stupid Girls" is just as antiwoman as it is pro-, it's still the most feminist thing to hit the airwaves this year--a sad state of affairs considering that the Gossip just released a video for "Standing in the Way of Control," a tune from their powerful new album of the same name on Kill Rock Stars. (I worked as the Gossip's publicist from 2002 to 2004 and for other KRS bands until mid-2005.) A trio of two queer women and one straight guy based in Portland, Oregon, the Gossip are well-known as pro-queer, pro-fat, and pro-gender radical, with lyrics that encourage rebel girls and boys everywhere to live and love however they want. They're the most beloved feminist band still active in the American punk underground now that Le Tigre has broken up. The new video, though, is evacuated of meaning--especially baffling considering it's the band's first proper video, made to promote what's being positioned as its breakthrough album.
It's not as though the song itself--a taut, dancy burner with fight-the-power lyrics--demanded a content-free video. Singer Beth Ditto pushes out the lines "Standing in the way of control / Yeah, live your life / Surviving the only way that you know" with such full-throttle gospel fervor you expect an "Amen!" at the end, and given the band's history and politics her words read as a defiant claim of radical identity, a shout-out to all the folks listening for whom just drawing breath is an act of rebellion.
But what's actually on the screen? The video starts with Atari 2600-grade rainbow clouds and brick walls, which dissolve into a still graphic of a buff, naked African-American man. The shot pans down, and in place of the man's penis is a mystery bassist in a ski mask, playing the song's disco-fied bass line. (The band is bassless, consisting of guitarist Brace Paine, drummer Hannah Blilie, and Ditto.) An animated hand strokes the bassist and rays of light shoot from his body, a la the Virgen de Guadalupe. Then we see Ditto, Paine, and Blilie, with layers of hypercolorful eight-bit loops weaving around them: abstract shapes (diamonds, arcs), objects (walls, disco balls), even body parts (teeth getting brushed, an ass getting tattooed). But the most striking thing isn't the postironic 2-D computer animation--thanks to Paper Rad, the aesthetic's pretty familiar by now. It's that the band, despite its passion for connecting the political and the personal, does not once address the camera. They look off into space or at the ground. Most of the time Paine's eyes are hidden behind his greasy skatebangs and Ditto's mouth is covered by her microphone (when she's not entirely obscured by a floating dog with a giant sandwich for a snout). And though Ditto's an unremitting fat-pride advocate, both onstage and off, in the video we only see her from the waist up.
When an overexposed star like Pink can be so blunt with her half-assed politics, why are these indie icons so coy about their revolutionary message? If like me you're a fan of the Gossip, you'll probably try to rationalize this away: Maybe the video's supposed to be a comment on the vapidity of image-based media. Maybe it's glorifying lo-tech DIY art. Maybe the Gossip figure that without exposure on mainstream outlets like MTV2 they're pretty much just playing to their existing audience, and they don't want to preach to the choir with a polemical video. But trying to explain why the band isn't saying anything with this video is really just a backward acknowledgment that videos do have power--and that this one doesn't use it.
It seems like our ability to ask anything big of pop forms is continually ebbing--instead we get signifiers to work with. Pink's feminism consists of little more than sorting signifiers into a "good girl" pile and a "bad girl" pile, and the Gossip hide their version behind a playful jumble of brightly colored whatever--which I'm afraid might signify that they're giving up the fight they called on all of us to join, hemming themselves in because they don't want the cool kids to make fun of them for being too sincere. It's enough to make a girl put down her football and pick up a video camera.