Amid the avalanche of criticism aimed at Kanye West’s over-the-top, obviously green-screened, naked Kim Kardashian-featuring, fake motorcycle-riding new video for “Bound 2,” is one common complaint that just keeps recurring: the video is too damn cheesy.
And, yes, it is. Yes, it’s the visual equivalent of a romance novel you’d find in the supermarket checkout line, or a drunkenly ill-conceived artistic partnership between Lisa Frank and Thomas Kinkade. But, of course, when a video is this incredibly kitschy, it’s usually a signal that the people who created it must have done so intentionally. Other than a basic lack of self-awareness on the part of the director and star, how else could you explain why an idea so cheesy is executed so gleefully and without restraint?
And if you look at it as intentional, then maybe it’s possible to see the the video as a deliberately corny ode to the feeling of falling in love, to the understanding that the cheesy and stupid emotions that you never thought would ever possess you can be both surprisingly real and frighteningly in the driver’s seat when it comes to your decision-making; that the cheesiness of those emotions actually isn’t fabricated, but real, and might in fact be the only thing really worth championing in a world where so much else is fake and manufactured. This might explain why cheap green-screening takes the center stage in the video: as the visual equivalent of the inherent corniness that real, uncool, stupid-looking human love entails.
But, of course, according to Kanye, that’s not what he means. In an interview yesterday with The Breakfast Club on New York’s Power 105 FM, Kanye stated straightforwardly that his intention with the video was “to show you that this is The Hunger Games. I want to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it. Admittedly, this is a pretty vague statement, but his remarks later on in the interview clarify his position a bit, as he goes on to say: “We’re enslaved by brands¦We’re controlled by peer pressure. We’re controlled by the desire for a particular car.”
So Kanye’s true motivation, if we’re to take him at his word, is to reveal the inherent manipulation behind the images that we consume every day, and the way in which they subjugate us into a cycle of unthinking, slave-like consumption. OK, this sounds familiar. But really, and more specifically, if Kanye really does stand behind his Hunger Games comparison (in that most images we see are part of marketing plan hatched from the minds of the business oligarchs that shut out from positions of power the very people to whom they are marketing), the “Bound 2” video can be seen as pointing out the hypocrisy of music videos in general, but of hip-hop videos in particular. After all, the urban music video tropes of hot, half-naked women and expensive cars have been played to death, but still remain entrenched in visual representations of the genre. “Bound 2” pulls back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes creation of that imagery in order to expose its true vapidity. You know when rappers look cool? When they’re riding motorcycles down a ‘hood street from canted camera angles and multiple perspectives. You know when they don’t? When they’re doing it in a single-angle shot in front of a green screen.
What complicates the execution of this vision is, ultimately, Kardashian’s back story and reputation. When you’re trying to ridicule oppressive and unrealistic imagery, choosing to feature somebody whose sex tape catapulted her to fame (among other dubious achievements) seems detrimental to the cause. Which is partially what makes the über-viral James Franco and Seth Rogan parody of the music video so effective. Because, let’s be real. It’s barely even a parody. The guys just remake the original video, practically shot for shot, with almost no observable changes. So why is it so hilarious simply to replace Kardashian with Rogan?
If we’re judging Franco and Rogan’s version by Kanye’s stated intention for the original video, then the parody actually operates in an almost identical way: by revealing the stupidity of the images that the media forces on unwitting consumers on a daily basis. But the big difference in the parody is that Franco and Rogan actually do nail something that Kanye doesn’t: the open objectification of women’s bodies for profit and publicity that hip-hop accepts so readily as an unquestioned fact of life in the music business. And maybe Kanye wasn’t even attempting to touch that in the first place. In all probability, he was too focused on the overall creation of false imagery around artists in general, and not on hip-hop tropes in particular. Likely, he was too close to the subject matter, and too infatuated with his leading lady, to see beyond his own attempt to reveal truths, however narrow, about the nature of consumerism, branding, and the music business. Still, Franco and Rogan get right the critically important gender piece that Kanye misses. To adopt Ye’s phrase: they show us the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us. And the only difference is a chubby, shirtless, hairy, white dude in the middle of it.
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