Beyoncé’s 2008 album cycle began with the video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” a tasteful, pared-down black-and-white Fosse homage whose only special effect was the singer’s nimble dance moves. Soon, she is to begin promoting her next album with the video for the up-with-women anthem “Run the World (Girls),” and has already released a short clip. It’s considerably more outré, featuring barbed-wire fences, empty streets, mushroom clouds, and Beyoncé herself facing down an all-male army as the word “REVOLUTION” flashes onscreen.
One is given to understand that much of the population has been wiped out (an almost subliminally-brief image of arrows flashes across a world map–nuclear war? Pandemic?) and that Beyoncé has assumed the role of heroine set to lead her acolytes through this Cormac McCarthyesque landscape. By the clip’s end, she’s mounted a rearing white horse, a veritable horsewoman of the apocalypse.
Music videos are an art form without much currency these days–MTV, their stalwart patron in the “Thriller” era, has abandoned them for a ceaseless glucose drip of reality TV, and YouTube’s democratic flattening places the glossy “Single Ladies” on equal footing with a lip sync by a Florida 14-year-old. Little surprise, then, that videos have entered their decadent phase: while no one was paying attention, their production values have skyrocketed, their themes grown sinister.
As a song, “Run the World (Girls)” is a clattering mess. Its message–that girls, which is to say women, are powerful and deserve respect from men–is roughly the same one found in an any innocuous Taylor Swift single. Beyoncé is not, in her lyrics at least, advocating anything resembling a global takeover. And yet the video world her girls would run is a ravaged one.
Ditto the setting of Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” She wants to dance “till the world ends,” a metaphor, one might think, for the club lights coming on at evening’s end. No such luck for those who prefer rapture to The Rapture: the video opens with a clip of meteors exploding and the chyron “December 21st, 2012.” Ms. Spears rides out the Mayan-calendar end times by grinding on guys in a grimy club. Explosions light the sky outside.
Online, theories abound for these pop stars’ recent fascination with apocalyptic imagery. Some exegeses are ludicrous, others serviceably plausible (say, what is Lady Gaga’s fascination with the Illuminati symbol of Baphomet?). But what these videos are fundamentally about is control. Rihanna’s 2010 pleading that her man make her feel “like the only girl in the world” sounds like a workaday come-on, but the song’s video reveals that every other girl in the world has quite literally disappeared, and our heroine strides through a toxic-looking red desert.
Rihanna is no stranger to taking command-or to overtly martial imagery. In her 2009 “Hard” video, she appeared in military drag, straddling a tank and commanding a battalion of soldiers; in 2010’s “Rockstar 101,” video clips of mushroom clouds illustrated her character’s fantasy star power. She was that special thing: a girl who ran the world, even if her reign meant mass destruction.
Singers may be bystanders to the apocalypse (Ms. Spears), or its instigators (Rihanna), or rebel priestesses (Beyoncé). They may even play God-Lady Gaga gives birth to a new race at the beginning of her “Born This Way” video and leads a climactic battle against evil at its conclusion. But, whether annihilators or saviors, these ladies are always the center of attention. In Beyoncé and Lady Gaga’s collaborative video from 2010, “Telephone,” the two singers kill every customer in a restaurant, and then dance among the corpses. Both singers went on to make videos (“Run the World,” from the former, “Born This Way,” the latter) in which they lead their respective armies in the name of good. Join us if you want to live, their art confidently proclaims.
In a time when the pop singer’s ability to monetize her skills has plummeted and exploded like a 2012 meteorite, this must seem a terrifically attractive proposition. The singer advances her soldiers into battle onscreen, even as her real-life power among the sort of listeners who used to buy albums dwindles.
The videos promise that if the listener joins Gaga’s race or Rihanna or Beyoncé’s ranks or Britney’s Thunderdome, he or she will be protected from history’s vicissitudes by a conquering diva. For all their sinister themes, these violent videos’ assumption that pop singers can ride out a real-life apocalypse in 2012 or beyond, when they have barely managed to justify their existence relative to their counterparts of the early 2000’s, is quaint and, harking back as it does to the onetime power of pop, strangely touching. It is even, dare we say it, optimistic.
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