SOJOURNS THROUGH THE SELF (IN 3 MUSIC VIDEOS)
BY APA AGBAYANI
A music video director considers three music videos that use dance to explore the human psyche and offer a physical form for our interior realities.
I cannot dance, so when I see powerful movement, I’m immediately floored. As a music video director, what I’ve tried to do in some of my work is translate that awe into the stories I create for songs—working closely with dancers to fresco their performances in a more permanent medium. The music video is an artform that I personally feel deserves far deeper critical assessment than it gets because it can make for compelling cinema, especially when it becomes a plane for different media to meet and play into one another.
Dance, when utilized a certain way in music videos, has the power to explore the human psyche and reach for the sublime. Dancers’ bodies become signifiers for larger themes; inner turmoil is enfleshed in movement; camp and comedy achieve transcendence. Other media like fantastical set design and fluid cinematography find their home so easily in this space because they complement the wonder and fantasy of dance itself.
Dancers’ bodies become signifiers for larger themes; inner turmoil is enfleshed in movement; camp and comedy achieve transcendence.
In this essay, I’ve chosen to write about three of my favorite music videos from 1985 to 2019 that use of dance to enter our interior worlds and offer a physical form for these emotional journeys.
I always joke that “Running Up That Hill” is one of the most transcendental songs of our time written with the radical question: “What if men had empathy?”
Kate Bush describes the song as the story of two people who “love each other enormously, so much so that the power of their love is the source of their problems. Briefly, if they could make a pact with God to exchange their roles—the man becoming the woman and the woman the man—they would understand each other better and would resolve their differences.”
Movement is at the core of a Kate Bush song. Whether she is climbing into your window, running up a hill or twanging like a rubberband, these emotions are propulsive—moving her to sing with her entire body.
She had wanted to train in ballet as a teenager but wasn’t accepted in any dance schools. Instead, she found herself under the tutelage of contemporary dancer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp. Kate said in an interview with Music & Electronics Maker in 1982, “He was the first person to actually give me some lessons in movement. I realized there was so much potential with using movement in songs, and I wanted to get a basic technique in order to be able to express myself fully. Lindsay has his own style… his classes and style are much more to do with letting go what's inside and expressing that. It doesn't matter if you haven't perfect technique.”
Though she utilized movement in many of her music videos, “Running Up That Hill” represents the pinnacle of her technical abilities as a dancer. Nowhere else are her lines this sharp; nowhere else does she purposely center choreography in an act of rebellion against the way she felt dance was being “used quite trivially” in music videos in the ‘80s. At the time, the music video was a medium where viewers needed to see artists lip-sync the song. Here, she insisted on dancing it instead.
How does the love between two people make them permeable enough to bleed into each other? Is passion enough if it isn’t tempered by understanding? Is there so much hate for the ones we love?
In the video, Kate and dancer Michael Hervieu explore dystopian rooms and hallways while their bodies manifest the core tensions of the song. How does the love between two people make them permeable enough to bleed into each other? Is passion enough if it isn’t tempered by understanding? Is there so much hate for the ones we love? In Diane Grey’s contemporary choreography, he lifts her into the air before they fold into each other on the floor; they stand back to back with their arms out as if crucified to one another; they get lost in a sea of strangers all wearing masks of Kate and Michael’s faces.
While the way Kate spoke of the song at the time was consistent with then-contemporary discourse on gender binaries (she said it spoke to “fundamental differences between men and women”), the video subverts these binaries. Seeing the two in identical monochrome leotards and hakama, we do not know where the woman ends and the man begins. There are moments director David Garfath switches their places or even breaks continuity to slice through the boundaries between these characters. Kate slides under Michael’s body but it is he who emerges on the other side. Michael throws Kate to the ground, then later Kate does the same to him. The strangers all wear his face, then suddenly they are wearing hers.
The video ends with the two synchronized but fully discrete of each other: taking turns drawing an imaginary bow, as if ready to fire into the camera. Just as the final note rings out, Kate releases the arrow.
Vanessa Carlton was a dancer before she was a singer. The “White Houses” music video directed by Sophie Muller was Vanessa’s first attempt in marrying those worlds.
In an interview with MTV, Vanessa said, “For the first time in years, I have somehow mustered up the courage to get myself to dance, not just in front of other people, but to get myself to dance by myself… I’ve always played piano, it's been part of my life, but I always kind of looked at this as some kind of release from who I really am, which is a dancer. There was a lot of pain when I stopped dancing, and to be able to go back to it, I feel like I'm somehow healed.”
With her attunement to these tensions between an artist’s image and their inner world (best seen, in my opinion, in her work with No Doubt and Sade), Sophie devised a video where the singer Vanessa Carlton, perceived as permanently glued to the piano bench, meets the dancer Vanessa Carlton who slinks, leaps and moonwalks freely through a studio space. She sings a song so that she herself can dance to it, bridging the distance between these two selves to see how they regard one another.
The song itself is an astonishingly vivid work of short fiction: a girl passes through the head rush of adolescence one summer—staying up too late with an odd assortment of new friends, falling for a boy in a bright red shirt, losing her virginity in the back of his car—and comes out of the experience wiser yet still wistfully clinging to these summer-tinted moments of youth.
The goal of these impossible views is not to create the illusion of sky, but to evoke in us a longing for sky.
Negotiating distance is a core aspect of healing. How far do you run from the thing that hurt you? How long do you stay away until you can look back at past hurt with your present self intact? The song bridges this distance between the young girl bruised by experience and the girl who will never forget the wonder of that summer. The video bridges the distance between the singer Vanessa was in 2004 and the dancer she grew up as, enfleshing this moment of interiority.
The two Vanessas regard each other coldly, sometimes glaring and rolling their eyes at each other, almost unwilling to accept that they are parts of the same self. In the second part of the bridge, the dancer crawls atop the piano and sings for the first time and the singer steps away from the bench frustrated by this encroachment on her space. There is this brief meeting of their worlds before they each pull back and finish the song almost as they began it, with just a touch more warmth for each other.
In the studio stands a huge photo of a young ballerina—Vanessa herself as a child—watching over this inner dialogue. Outside the doors is an unabashedly blue backdrop painted like the sky and sea, the boldest spot of color in the entire video. These touches of impressionism pull us further out of reality, imagining nature as an emotional plane rather than a physical one. The goal of these impossible views is not to create the illusion of sky, but to evoke in us a longing for sky.
It is the final detail underlining the longing at the heart of “White Houses”—the longing for lost innocence, for kinder eyes towards the ungainliness of our youth, for the power to dance ourselves back to ourselves without breaking.
It is nice every now and then to take a break from the seriousness of desire and just take the piss out of our own longing. Because, let’s be honest, wanting is a clown’s pastime so we might as well laugh at ourselves while we’re doing it.
Caroline Polachek’s video for “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” (co-directed by Matt Copson) paints desire as a kitschy cartoon hell. A prosthetic demon hand reaches across her tally marks of her days trapped in her desire. Candle wax drips down a stalagmite as artificial blue flames lick the walls of the cave. She line dances around the craggy stage set with the apocalyptic peach sunset of hell painted behind her.
“The song is about being painfully far away from someone you’re crazy about but still trying to keep your cool, which as everyone knows is a private kind of hell,” Caroline says in an interview with Out of Order. “I was thinking about the watercolor scenes in Ren & Stimpy where they’d depict the inside of their minds, and also the sequence in Disney’s Little Mermaid when Ariel’s voice gets pulled out of her… it’s all so psychological. But the thing about personal hell is there’s a lot of time to kill and there’d better be a dance routine.”
It feels like a curtain call for a one-woman musical set in Mordor.
In the bridge of the song, she recreates the Little Mermaid moment, drawing her voice out of herself in a neon blue swirl. Much of Caroline’s music is built around the mellifluousness of her voice. She seems to propel her entire being from her lungs, leaping up the scale until her voice breaks against the upper limit of her register.
Through the entire video, it’s her vocals that she dances to in campy, deadpan choreography. She uses a palette of remarkably literal movements: resting her cheek in her palm at “I get a little lonely”; throwing a lasso over her head as if to draw someone in at “Get a little more close to me”; pulling a knife deeper into herself by the next line, “You’re the only one who knows me, babe.” For the footwork, Caroline was inspired by elements of American line dancing and Scottish folk dance. The result is a tongue-in-cheek, easy-to-learn routine born from the seed of idle longing.
The Steadicam work keeps your focus on her movement as she makes her way across every inch of the stage, her blocking markers drawn in chalk across the floor. In the final shot, the Steadicam pulls out, revealing the massive scale of the soundstage she’s just performed on. It feels like a curtain call for a one-woman musical set in Mordor.
“So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” is a unique reminder that some of our personal hells—especially the ones we entrap ourselves in—are worth dancing through for the hell of it. And that a dance film needn’t be something so self-serious, especially when it’s the perfect vessel for artful dark comedy like this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Apa Agbayani is a 28-year-old writer and director from Manila who tries to work on music videos and short films in between shooting commercials. You can find his writing on CNN Philippines Life and his TinyLetter Black comedy. As you’re reading this, he’s probably looking for something to eat, saving pictures from rat Instagram accounts, or playing with his dog Sherlock.