Imagine this: you’re walking down the street, minding your own business. Maybe you’re on the way to the grocery store, or maybe you’re walking your dog. You turn a corner and you’re suddenly inches away from a streaker, fully naked and acting as though it’s just another day. Would you be confused? Startled? Disgusted? You’d probably think they were crazy or on drugs.
Now imagine you’re scrolling through Instagram and notice your favorite artist just released a new music video in which they strip naked in public. Would you still think it was crazy, or would you view it as a visionary exhibition of individuality? If you’re a fan of Matt & Kim, Erykah Badu, or Princess Nokia, you’d probably be in the second group.
Nudity in music videos is not a new thing. It is one of the most enduring features of the medium. Starting with Queen and Duran Duran through Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and so on, nudity and in-your-face sexuality are two of the quickest ways to draw attention to a music video. Generally, nudity is used primarily to attract viewers and doesn’t directly relate to the message of the song. When it does relate, it usually concerns sexual liberation or at least includes a sexual component. This is why Matt & Kim’s “Lesson’s Learned” music video, released in 2009, was so groundbreaking — it used nudity to add a new layer of meaning to the song without sexualizing the performers. The video illustrates the mentality of doing what makes you happy rather than what people tell you to do.
A year later Erykah Badu released a video for her song “Window Seat” and drew direct inspiration from the individualism expressed in Matt & Kim’s music video. She brings in a social context that evolves the video from Matt & Kim’s self-expression to a critique of America. Badu, in turn, inspired the video for “Balenciaga” by Princess Nokia, released in 2019. Princess Nokia reimagines Badu’s critique from a different perspective and narrows the scope to fashion.
In the next few posts, I will analyze how each of these music videos achieves its intended message. I will then examine how each differs from the last and how this subtly changes the meaning. I will look at the evolution of Matt & Kim to Erykah Badu to Princess Nokia.
Music Video Analysis: “Lessons Learned” by Matt and Kim
“Lessons Learned” is off Matt & Kim’s second studio album Grand, which was their breakthrough project lead primarily by the certified gold single “Daylight”. The album embraces living for the moment and ignoring overly constricting social. The video for “Lessons Learned” showcases this mentality.
The video was directed by Taylor Cohen and Otto Arsenault. It’s one take and is shot in slow motion so that they could stretch it to last the duration of the song. It was filmed in Times Square in mid-February and was not staged; the reactions of the bystanders and cops are completely genuine. The setting and impromptu feel of the video are essential in the construction of the video’s meaning. In this article I examine the location, nudity, and surprising ending in the music video for “Lessons Learned”.
Times Square is perhaps the most aggressively commercialized location in the world. Everywhere you look something is saying you need this, or you can’t live without that. If there was ever a physical manifestation of how Americans ascribe value to people or things, it would be Times Square. It represents how people create an identity through excessive capitalism, such as the outfits people wear, cars people drive, shows people watch, and so on. It’s the opposite of true individuality and therefore is the perfect place for Matt & Kim to exhibit their care-free and individualistic attitude, creating an extreme contrast.
Stripping, especially when done in public, is generally a portrayal of someone revealing their true self. By wearing clothes, you submit to the rules of society, and by wearing mass-manufactured clothes you assimilate into a larger group and relinquish what makes you unique. Ripping clothes off the body can be seen as an act of rejection towards the suppression of the individual.
The image of the naked Matt and Kim resembles the image of Adam and Eve. This image of purity is juxtaposed with the corrupt and commercialized world of modern America. It’s strengthened by the way they act once they’re fully naked. Standing on the street corner, they stare up at the buildings around them in pure admiration as if it was the greatest thing they’d ever seen. Adam and Eve are symbolic of what it means to be human at its most fundamental level. It’s difficult to watch this video and not see how joyful and carefree Matt and Kim become once they’re naked. They look incredibly alive, and by contrast, the stupefied bystanders whose only reactions are to take out their phones seem practically braindead. Matt and Kim illustrate how commercialization and consumerism — causes of what Erykah Badu would call groupthink — erode individuality and has led us astray from what it means to be human.
The video has an abrupt and jarring end. Kim, after escaping from the police, runs into the street in excitement and is hit by a bus. This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is that society cannot allow for this type of individuality and therefore destroys it like an immune system that attacks a disease. The vehicle that hits her is significant — a bus is public transportation and is crucial to a well-run society. People walking around naked is deemed detrimental, so the bus takes her out. This reading is highly critical of group mentality as it seems to lead to an Orwellian state where individual freedom is nonexistent.
The other reading is that Kim brought this accident upon herself, like Icarus flying to close to the sun. They succeed in their mission to throw off the oppressive chains (clothes) of consumerism and express their individuality. They are briefly stopped by police but manage to escape. They evade punishment, yet Kim decides to take it one step further and run into the street. In a fully individual-centered society, a person would be able to go wherever they want whenever they want, but this isn’t realistic. She got too cocky and it led to the accident that ensues. In this reading, the accident is her fault and implies that although individuality is important, there’s a reason community is highly regarded. Basic rules of law are crucial in keeping order and preventing chaos. In the video, Matt and Kim walk a fine line between individual freedom and common sense. In the end, Kim crosses the line to disastrous consequences.
In all likelihood, the second interpretation is more aligned with Matt and Kim’s intentions. To suggest that running into traffic is an appropriate means of asserting your freedom is a bit too ludicrous, even for a duo known for having an “I don’t give a f*ck” attitude. Instead, they seem to strike a balance. While they criticize modern America as being too hostile to individuality, they also recognize the importance of a communally agreed-upon set of rules that everyone must follow.
Matt & Kim strip to show how freeing it can be to break away from the group. The visual reference to Adam and Eve shows how you must strip away the layers of society to reach your true self. The choice of Times Square as the location suggests that consumerism and commercialism are the main elements you need to disentangle yourself from. The final shot, though, is a dose of reality. However great and fulfilling individuality can be, community is just as essential.
Come back next week for part two, in which I look at “Window Seat” by Erykah Badu!
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on September 24, 2020.