While I’m watching I Need My Girl, the latest video released by The National, I know exactly what to say. I know how to describe the beauty, the solemnity, the powerfully related music and movement choices. Once the video ends I am adrift without words, or at least without adequate words. I watch it again, again, another time, it never ends. I see the work, I feel the work, I am the work, and when it ends I still cannot be sure I can describe the work.
This is a masterpiece.
Meticulously sculpted in black and white with moments of washed-out color, couples turn on smoothly rotating platforms in ballroom-inspired poses, against a solid black background. There is no place and there is no time, except for the slight nod to age that occurs when an elderly couple joins the group mid-video. The video opens on a masculine, suited figure and a feminine figure in a cocktail dress and long black gloves. They are still for a moment, simply rotating, the woman bent backward in an arch, the man gently supporting her. She releases the pose and places her head on his shoulder at the first moment of the song. They stand in an embrace, whirling slowly, shifting in space as if they were celestial bodies.
As the video progresses couples shift and change, seamlessly fading one into another, always slowly rotating through space. It’s mostly the women who move, into underarm turns, sweetheart holds, long reaches to the side with a spin to return, slow supported back bends and more, always returning to an embrace. The suited figures respond to their movements, watch them, support them, and never initiate. As the women move, they create ghost trails of themselves that lag behind, creating a visual echo. The echo allows smooth shifts from one couple to another and seamless integration of the various movements. Often the shadow of the embrace to which they all return can be seen under the movement echo. Done first quite simply, with one couple and small movements, it grows with each couple introduced. Then, in perfect synchronicity with the growing emotional tension in the music, all the couples appear one after another in a breathtaking turning sequence.
The first couple emerges again, alone in the space. The vocals break through the space like diamond cutting glass and the music opens into new depth. “I need my girl, I need my girl…. I’m under the gun again.” She begins a slow back bend. The camera draws back, revealing other couples in a large circle surrounding the central pair. The larger circle rotates around the central couple, slowly picking up speed until their moving images create a blur that lends clarity to the still-shifting central couple, even through the ghostly visual echo. The central movements calm as the outer circle intensifies, until only the embrace is left. The outer couples disappear into the central couple, and it ends back at the beginning with the first couple in their beginning pose.
It’s in the embrace.
There are many things that can be said about this work, not all of them positive. It’s hetero normative, which I forgive by dint of The National’s clearly heterosexually-oriented songbook. It may be argued that, by using ballroom, the man is continuously supporting the woman and she is merely an ornament. But this is shallow thinking, and misses the point of both the song and the dance. And here’s where my words fail me again. I know it all comes down to her: he is “under the gun again,” and “feeling smaller, smaller.” She moves and there are echos of her that envelop him, immerse him, comfort him. As I mentioned, their embrace is almost always seen underneath the visual echo, and it is the home they both return to between movements.
The effect of all of this, which I find so extraordinarily difficult to put into words, is the personal becomes the universal. The National is visually and musically stating that we all need a partner to return to, one whose embrace we can feel with us throughout our days. In the end, the seamlessly shifting couples are one, despite their diversities. It is human to feel insecure and drained, and having just one person — be he or she a lover, a friend, a relative — who truly understands you is the difference between being “good and grounded,” and succumbing to the proverbial gun.