Every so often a music video surfaces that makes the rounds in my dancer circles, accompanied by massive praise. “It’s so nice to see dance like this in mainstream media,” is the common platitude. The most recent one is the newest Carrie Underwood, Something in the Water. This video is far from rare; it is the embodiment of dance in mainstream media. It is flashy, self-involved, overproduced, and overly technical. It’s a So You Think You Can Dance routine, not an Alvin Ailey masterpiece.
More often than not dance in popular media tanks artistically but soars in popularity, just like Underwood’s video. Why is this? I liken it to a romantic comedy: you know it’s a little off and yet you can’t help but watch. Romantic comedies smooth the world around us into palatable morsels, lulling us into acquiescent stupor. It all turns out OK for Jennifer Garner, so it will be OK for us, too. All we have to do is be a little clumsy or uptight at the right time so the perfect man can see the real us underneath the armor. Underwood’s video does the exact same thing. There’s not one bit of it that challenges or breaks boundaries. Her singing and the dancing both seek to amaze based on technique alone, subbing bravado for artistry. It’s a celebration of an idealized version of humanity, hiding all our negative attributes. The ego boost feels so good going down, but it is disingenuous and leaves a bad taste.
Take as a counterexample Sia’s Chandelier, which is in my opinion the best music video of 2014. Here you have choreographer Ryan Heffington using technique to its utmost. The dancer, Maddie Ziegler, is a competition-trained dancer best known from Dance Moms. It would be so easy, given her background and proclivities, to choreograph a competition-style routine that hits only high points and is devoid of any depth. Heffington instead combines Ziegler’s technical prowess with childlike, postmodern movement, creating an eerie dance further amplified by the abandoned house setting and Sia’s ghostly party-girl-gone-wrong anthem. A sense of tension is developed and then maintained by the association of the disparate elements. This is a perfect marriage of technique and artistry, an example of work that does not sacrifice either element in the finished product.
At heart, Heffington’s choreography uses exactly the same movement basis as Underwood’s video. So why does one fail so stupendously while the other is a fantastic piece of art? It’s in the tension. Underwood’s video has none. It is, as I said, only an ego boost. “You’re doing fine,” says the video. “So what if you’re a mess and you don’t know how you got here. Just talk to God and maybe get baptized and suddenly everything will be right. At the very least, you’ll be absolved of your actions from here on so you’ll never have to figure anything out.” Sia’s video, on the other hand, displays human behavior we aren’t comfortable with, and she doesn’t apologize. The song’s subject is an absolute wreck. The 11-year-old dancer represents many things: the singer, a younger version of ourselves we all wish we could let out, the sadness of children left to fend for themselves in poverty- and addiction-ridden neighborhoods, an alcoholic barely keeping herself afloat as people scold her, the performative nature of life… my list goes on. Sia’s not giving us any easy answers or a way out, she’s just confronting us with our humanity. The tension in the video forces us to face the tension in our lives. Comedians from Jimmy Kimmel to Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon have done more-or-less parodic versions of the routine, just to help the mass audience process the work, and that’s to say nothing of the countless fan-submitted re-creations on YouTube (which Sia reportedly loves).
So when you watch a music video, ask yourself, “Am I being challenged?” Here’s a few more music videos that use dance to challenge their audience:
Running up that Hill: Kate Bush’s original version, with the singer in the female dancing role. This is modern dance with CI-influenced partnering at its core. It has some issues, mostly due to the fact that it was created in the 80’s… but it’s still solid.
Belong to the World: The Weeknd utilizes Japanese modern dance and Butoh within a world of controlled soldiers. This is definitely dance not often seen in mainstream media.
バッハの旋律を夜に聴いたせいです: Japanese group Sakanaction questions how we see ourselves by using mirrors, puppets, and dummies. Very Haruki Murakami.
Valtari: Sigur Ros places two impossibly supple modern dancers in an abandoned building and sets them on a path to collision. Also dance not typically seen in mainstream media.
Paste Magazine came out with a list of what they call “20 of the best modern music videos.” Some on the list like Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend and tUnE-yArDs’ Bizness I agree with. Others not so much (anyone else feel uncomfortable with parts of Oh Land’s White Nights?). Take a look through and formulate your own opinions.