Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Pictured L to R: Emily, Dave, Laura, Caitlin
D: So let's talk about "My Humps."
E (#1 stunna): OK. The first thing you see in the video is the backdrop: gray, drab, completely unglamorous, unostentatious...just UN-. The nature of the backdrop forces a tension on the figures on the screen and everything they embody -- whatever they're wearing, what they look like, gestures they make, whatever. You end up seeing this juxtaposition between the backdrop and whatever's the center (always in the center, never to the side -- this is purposeful). The focus is always on the center, and it's usually minimal -- two or three people, or Fergie and her girlfriends in a neat row, or a person with an object... There's no "party scene," there are no "masses." That's how it breaks away from the rap stereotypes, "Hot in Herre," lots of...what's that video with Puff Daddy and Biggie and they have all the fancy liquor and the diamonds...?
D: All of them?
E: Anyway. So the distance (the metaphorical distance, the difference) between the backdrop and the characters tells us not to trust our immediate visual reaction, because the backdrop and figures don't match --
D: We sense something is off.
E: Well, something is off and not everything is as it should be -- it's not one thing or the other. It's not, "oh, this is a video where we see lots of glamorous people" or something grittier or grimier, something that resonates with the backdrop...how can it be both? There are layers -- layers of looking and "reading," understanding, or looking leading to reading, it's not a linear path of looking and then understanding. Both exist simultaneously -- you can find two things in one object and because you find both, you have two separate understandings. I just think that's interesting.
D: What two things are you looking at?
E: So...well, the looking is also listening. When I first heard the song, all I heard was UMP UMP UMP.
D: The onomatopoeia?
E: We'll get to that. But then I thought, wait, did she just say "LADY LUMPS"? I was totally disgusted and didn't want to hear it anymore, didn't want to care. The first thing you see...in an abstract sense...notice...is the crudeness. It's crude because it's simple, there are very few changes in the song, there's no story. Also crude because...it is, on the surface, sexist, no question.
But then I watched the video (and by then I already liked the way the song sounded, even though I didn't particularly understand or appreciate its "politics," if there were politics there, which I assumed there were) and there's such a stark juxtaposition between the backdrop and the flashy people in the center, and there are these smug looks on their faces -- raised eyebrows, intensified Mona Lisa smiles. I realized that the song was ridiculous...not that it was misguided-but-catchy, but ridiculous. The performers -- Fergie and will.i.am -- knew it was, they sat down and said "let's write a ridiculous song."
And then I felt like I'd been had, I totally misread it at first! I thought it was disgusting, but they know it is disgusting, that's why they wrote it, not to shock me, but because it's funny! Giggling at the word "humps"! Remember when we were driving to Lawrenceville and there were speedbumps in the road and we saw a sign that said "HUMPS" and laughed every time we saw it? It's a funny word!
D: Does that get us to onomatopoeia?
E: Totally. So when you listen to the song, the sound you hear all the time is "ump, ump, ump," and that sounds like a beat -- that happened to me, the first time I heard it I didn't catch all the lyrics, it was just a poppy dance song. Some woman with a sassy voice (also part of the whole smugness of it, the self-conscious performance...I don't believe Fergie is sassy generally, it's a character) and "ump, ump, ump." So basic that the sound of the music and the lyrics are one.
D: Oompah, oompah, oom-pah-pah.
E: You made me write that down, I don't remember why.
D: Because it's part of what makes it silly?
E: Yeah, they're singing the sound of the song. "Oh man, this is stupid! This is simple and stupid." We're meant to dance to it...
D: It's reductive. It's reduced to the point of being infantile.
D: And so are the lyrics.
E: Well, right, all of the lyrics are centered -- if we're thinking of a "theme" -- around UMP. I want to get back to smugness -- stop biting your nails! -- the dual layered smugness.
D: And what are those layers?
E: You see that the characters are smug -- they have the smug looks on their faces, within the world of the video. You see the singers in the video and they both have smug looks on their faces, they narrow their eyes, Fergie purses her lips, will.i.am has the hat cocked to the side...their smugness is about boasting about their power, look at all the things I have, look at what I can accomplish all by myself. That's on the surface...this is the surface perception, but there's something else going on. There's the nails and the cars and the crazy skirt track suit...smug/boastful about all these things they have.
D: So that's the first smug.
E: And the second smug is that you see the performers are smug. Their smugness is knowing that I --
D: Just you?
E: I would venture to say other listeners, also. They're smug because they know that I thought that the song was totally crude at first...sincerely crude, when really it was very playful and jokey, and the performers are being sarcastic. The obvious question to me is, how do I know they're being sarcastic?
D: Yeah...the video is the most reductive version of the elements of a rap video -- you want cars? Here's a car. You want a motorcycle? Here's a motorcycle. Here are some nails. Shot of nails. Here is a bag. Shot of bag. Here is the guy. Shot of guy. Here are random women.
E: Yeah, and you get two random women. You want the disco scene? Here it is. You want the back room scene? Here it is. You want gyrating?
D: She gyrates in a way that's also ridiculous, reductive. HERE IS FERGIE GYRATING. But there's no other context! And they hold the shot for just the right length...
E: Right, it's just her and a backdrop! She's not at a party, she's not with a guy...she has her back to will.i.am most of the time. Their actions are sarcastic because the context is a gray backdrop. Listener/viewers can't help but react immediately -- oh, this is a rap video. BUT, if you're able to move beyond that initial reaction to see all of this silliness, to see the fake gyrating (Fergie's not trying to get any man, it's JUST gyrating), the silliness tells us that understanding this video or the song as a stereotypical rap video or song -- it doesn't exist. You have all of these ironic disconnected elements.
D: What do you mean by "it doesn't exist"?
E: Not that the video doesn't exist, just that your understanding of it, your reaction to the video and song is totally wrong and you have to re-think that and find a better way, the true way of understanding the tone and the message. The message being, to me, "ha ha, we're going to trick you. We know the formula as well as you do, but we're going to trick you anyway, even though you know the formula." And that's what they -- Fergie and will.i.am, the artists -- are smug about. You're gonna think one thing and be off-put by how "dangerous" this song is for our young female audience (or whatever) when really what's going on is that they're making fun of you for thinking of those "dangerous" things, and they're also making fun of some of those things -- male and female objectification of women, obsession with money and jewelry and humps -- especially as seen in music videos.
D: The joke's on you.
E: Right, they're making fun of you for assuming what something is upon first glance, that rap videos or popular songs are always honest, because they're not. And shouldn't be taken at face value all the time. No, they're not really making fun, they're just tricking. It's a game. They're making fun of themselves, too. Yes, we're rich, Fergie has the hair, the nails, she can gyrate too!
This is why Alanis's video makes no sense. Fergie is already making fun of herself...people say Alanis is making fun of herself, putting the angsty, torn-up Alanis into these clothes. But I don't see the commentary in her mimicking what Fergie is doing! Fergie is already doing it, so it's just poor mimickry! All you need to do is look at Fergie's face when she says "check it out!" Her hint of "I'm having fun, I'm teasing you, laugh at me!" It's really delightful.
**BREAK FOR DUMPLINGS AND VIDEO RE-WATCH**
D: Those were good dumplings.
[notices D typing that]
E: You're stupid.
E: I wanted to talk about the lyrics and some of the literalized visual parts of the original video.
E: So they start with this euphemism, "junk in the trunk," and by halfway through the song they've just abandoned it completely -- "ass in the jeans," "breast in the shirt." The euphemism makes it seem...PG, or something, and then to just give up the pretext and NAME the humps and the lumps...
D: Well, we all knew what they were talking about to begin with. Even the 13-year-old girls.
E: Belaboring the obvious. And it's not annoying, it's unexpected. It's a bait and switch. Think I'm being coy?
E: The other funny thing related to being so blatant is using the images of the things they're talking about. Look, Fergie's sitting on a trunk! It's a little pun -- trunk! Get it? What else...
D: "Down at the disco," and it's just will.i.am in a nondescript dark room with a little disco ball.
E: Is it really? Also when she's talking about her "ices," and there's a little montage of fancy shiny things. Here's a ring! A belt! A necklace! We understand what they mean by jewelry, we don't need a montage...but it works because it's so stupidly redundant! It's completely spelled out.
D: Well, they do enjoy spelling. T-A-S-T-E-Y, G-L-A-M-O-R-O-
E: OK. I think what you said about Alanis bringing ideas and perceptions into the song when they don't exist there originally is a good point -- it's a reason why Alanis's parody doesn't work. You need to parody traits that are inherently part of what you're parodying...but objectification of women, if you can believe it, is not what "My Humps" is about!
D: Well, elaborate on that, because Abby and I have been at an impasse on this point.
E: I think the best way to understand it's not about objectifying women is to discuss what it is about, which we've talked about above. It's about the performers' relationship to us as listeners and viewers and their influence on us...
D: ...Or lack thereof?
E: Not lack thereof, but the interdependence of their influence on us and our influence on them by choosing to listen to them. You said it became popular through YouTube?
D: Like iTunes, downloads.
E: It was an under-the-radar hit. I mean, they get big because people want to listen to them. "Oh, this is the new thing from Black Eyed Peas." How much can each side influence, play with -- NOT manipulate -- the other. There's a minor twist in what I initially believed to what I ended up realizing to be true about the song, but by their challenging my assumptions going into the song, not through coercing me to like them through pure aural bliss (something like, "I love the beat, so I don't care what they're saying"). I also think BEP are commenting, ambiguously, on rap videos.
D: So are they saying you should take a look at all rap videos again, not just this one?
E: No, that's a flaw in the song, their ambiguity. There really isn't a "message." They're taking a very broad category and they're saying there's a formula. And there is a formula, but even that's not always adhered to. "Here's the formula for rap videos" -- not for understanding a "culture," mind you, but a genre.
D: It's not about the "raunch culture."
E: Right. They're talking specifically about music videos. They're poking fun at themselves... "Here's the formula: hot women, ices, car, motorcycle, dancing." They're winking at us. What you think Alanis is doing in the first, like, minute of her video -- making fun of people dancing a certain way, wearing certain clothes -- that's similar to what Fergie et al. are doing [Emily did actually just say "et al" --ed.], they're in cheerleading outfits at one point.
D: In both videos?
E: No, in the original. But Alanis diverges from BEP. She brings in all of these problems that aren't funny. Parodies are supposed to be funny -- disturbing and funny, like Our Gang, but it shouldn't be humorless. It can be instructive...
L (from couch): Parody problematizes through humor, it doesn't just problematize. Parody calls your attention to problems that already exist in the object of parody, they don't create new ones.
E: Right. Alanis is inserting all of these socially weighty issues that may be a problem in our society as a whole or whatever, but definitely aren't brought up by, or embodied by, or even suggested by BEP. Besides, as we figured out before, "MH" is not commenting about a culture, but a certain artistic genre, so commenting on something other than or bigger than that genre is to miss the point entirely...and the cover ends up being disturbing to watch...
D: ...in a way that is disconnected from the original.
E: In a way that is totally created by Alanis, from start to finish. She becomes the author of those problems, so to speak. Which is also disturbing.
Also, the video is OVER FOUR MINUTES LONG. Even if it's funny in a novelty sense for the first thirty seconds, FOUR minutes of Alanis whining is not only not funny, but makes my ears bleed.
D: Now you sound like me. Of course the original parody is admittedly flawed...
E: That's what I said, don't just give yourself good lines. And don't put words into my mouth.
E: What are we getting at here?
(L reminds us from the couch to mention that the Alanis version sounds like "Zombie" by the Cranberries. C returns home and wants to go out for ice cream.)
E: I want to take a break.
Alas, it was too late for us to continue this conversation in time for hump day. So this is it for now, to be continued in the comments section as always.