Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Crash, Crash, Crash

Last month, Foo Fighters released a video for their new single "Rope." In less than 30 days, it has amassed 1.2 million views on Youtube. That is almost exactly one million more views than Stone Temple Pilots' "Big Bang Baby" video, released 15 years ago (but to be fair, uploaded to Youtube 18 months ago). Set side-by-side, the similarity between these two videos is striking. They both feature numerous close ups of the band playing in front of an all-white background. But upon closer inspection, it is not just time that separates these two productions--they indicate fundamental differences in the eras that spawned them.

Music fans speak wistfully about a time when MTV showed music videos. But I think this lament has actually been going on longer than the total time MTV actually showed videos. By the time "Big Bang Baby" came out, MTV had already moved on. It was a moot point for me, though. Growing up without cable (and certainly without Youtube), my exposure to this video came, weirdly, through an NBC program that aired videos on late Friday nights. My brother Tim had enough foresight to capture the "Big Bang Baby" episode on VHS videotape, which we proceeded to watch regularly in the spring of 1996. Neither one of us could clearly articulate the appeal of it, but Tim came up with the description that the performers "looked like humans." What he was recognizing, of course, was that the highly stylized, big budget entertainment that we were used to had been replaced by an intentionally lo-fi production resembling the "home movies" that were produced on VHS camcorders of the 1990s. But being teen-agers in 1996, we didn't have the term "lo-fi" in our vocabulary. That would be added to our consciousness around five years later, when it became a trend in the re-emergence of "garage rock." So were STP proto-neo-garage rockers?

(Embedding of the video has been disabled, but here is the link)

Insomuch as the garage bands were rehashing what came before, STP was way ahead of the curve. Watching this video in the context of today, a narrative of nostalgia is much more apparent to me then it was then. Even before the video starts, the SMPTE color bars suggest a pre-cable milieu. Scott Weiland's neon pants suggest the 1980s, but his posturing is reminiscent of David Bowie in the 1970s (while his interplay with guitarist Dean DeLeo brings to mind Steven Tyler and Joe Perry). Going farther back, when Robert DeLeo steps up and shares the mic with Weiland, we have a Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. Meanwhile, drummer Eric Kretz is wearing a shirt that he may have borrowed from the Beach Boys:

And then there are the special effects in the video: the over-the-top lips at :20 somewhat characteristic of 1970s camp, the spinning spiral at :59 that looks like it came out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, the psychedelic stars at 1:47, and of course the Brady Bunch sequence at 2:42--all are evocative in their own right, but taken together they form layers of association. Toss in moments of Led Zeppelin TV smashing, gorillas in Hawaiian shirts, and money being thrown around, and you end up having all the imagistic elements associated with music videos of that era--but they stand out all the more for the white background. And we haven't even discussed the song itself--riffs borrowed from punk and glam rock along with a chorus overtly ripped off from the Rolling Stones, the total package is just packed with historical signifiers. (Addendum: Wikipedia has an unsourced claim that the band was influenced by Tony Basil's "Hey Mickey," another white-background music video).

But when a production is packed with history, what does that portend for the future? Foo Fighters were around and making videos at the same time as "Big Bang Baby" came out, and have proven to be one of the most resilient bands of their era. Perhaps it can be speculated that Dave Grohl has steadfastly attempted to make his band ahistorical. I once saw an interview in which he had insightfully compared Foo Fighters to Wings. Once you have already been in a band that has not only made history but has been enshrined in the pantheon of rock innovators, all you can do from there is just put your head down and record straight-forward, unpretentious, melodic songs that sound good live.

And that's pretty much what they've done for nearly twenty years now. They consistently churn out catchy, radio friendly hit songs. But if someone has never heard a Foo Fighters song before, you could play them five hits from five different years and they would have very little chance of identifying what song came from what year. And that brings us up to today, with the song and video for "Rope":

But whereas the white background of "Big Bang Baby" proved to be symbolic of the concept of "presence", in which multiple images and ideas could be mapped, Foo Fighters background is one of absence. There are no signifiers. We are now several years removed from the rise of retrograde garage rock, and we've reached a predictable epoch. Once nostalgia has run its course, what comes next isn't a renaissance, it's simply a blank canvas upon which nothing is projected.

But a curious thing does happen at 2:51 of the Foo Fighters video. We get a fake fadeout (a bit of a rock cliche), and then the rest of the video is the background superimposed with flashes of every color of the spectrum. The band becomes shadows, and the strobe effect dominates, before a final shot establishing that the band was in a box the whole time. Fifteen years ago, Scott Weiland sang "We used to see in color/but now it's only black and white/because the world is colorblind." Of course, television progressed from black and white to color, but the implication is that as the medium advanced, our ability to filter our reality regressed. (The opening line "I've got a picture of a photograph" also establishes that we layer one representation on another). But in the end, the Stone Temple Pilots are content in letting the viewers fill in their own color, whereas Foo Fighters try on one after another, frantically pleading for some color to enliven their reality (even as it obscures them in the process). Unfortunately, the strobe flickers and they are left with a little bang, baby.


Blogger CAP said...

It looks like the Foo Fighters might be making an appearance at Lollapalooza this year down in Chicago.

1:25 PM  

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