In “Lessons Learned”, Matt & Kim show the freedom and joy that comes with individuality. Erykah Badu reaffirms how important individuality is with “Window Seat”, but also calls attention to the harsh backlash you will face if you try to gain independence. This takes the form of groupthink, which stifles independence and essentially turns a group into a hivemind. She points out how dangerous this mentality is and correctly predicts that her video will be attacked by people suffering from groupthink. She calls on her viewers to rebel against this way of thinking.
In this post, I discuss the third and final video to make use of these themes and framework: “Balenciaga” by Princess Nokia. She takes the argument put forward by Erykah Badu and narrows the scope to fashion. She plays with the structure of the video to depict the other side of the struggle between groupthink and individuality.
Analysis III: “Balenciaga” by Princess Nokia
by Colin Hodgson
On February 26th, 2020, Princess Nokia released her third and fourth studio albums, Everything Sucks and Everything is Beautiful. Princess Nokia did very little to advertise the two albums. The only hint she gave before the week of their releases was the single “Balenciaga”. The song came out on November 15, 2019, along with the accompanying music video directed by Paulette Agnes Ang.
The song is an articulation of Princess Nokia’s sense of style and a condemnation of those who dress a certain way to fit in. She claims to “dress for myself, I don’t dress for hype/I dress for myself, you dress for the likes”. She does not criticize the fashion world as a whole, and even released a statement saying, “It’s not anti-designer at all… the underlying theme I realized was about not caring what people think and dressing for yourself.” She uses a juxtaposition of high and low fashion to refute the idea that designer clothes are better or more desirable than clothes from a thrift store. She pokes fun at people who spend absurd amounts of money on clothes for the status symbol, people that Erykah Badu would argue are under the influence of groupthink.
The video follows the same structure as “Lessons Learned” and “Window Seat”. Princess Nokia begins fully clothed and takes off one layer at a time in public until she is fully naked. There are a few key differences that distinguish her video from the previous two, though. First, the video was choreographed. Second, there is no staged death at the end. I will examine these differences and how they shift the video’s meaning.
Matt & Kim and Erykah Badu use spontaneity, the former to accentuate the feeling of pure joy and freedom, the latter to provoke genuine reactions. While there is an element of an unknowing public audience in “Balenciaga”, the video was not a spontaneous one. There are several people (who seem to be models) involved in the shoot that interact with Princess Nokia in a rehearsed manner, and there are multiple cuts, some obvious and some hidden.
“Balenciaga” is a commentary on the fashion world. Thus, the video can be viewed as an unconventional runway walk. Catwalks are highly rehearsed, which is why the video is staged. Princess Nokia combines the orchestrated feeling of a catwalk and the unpredictability of the New York City streets to create an extreme contrast similar to that of her lyrics. Just as she uses juxtaposition to diminish the perceived value of expensive clothes with lines like, “Sketchers looking like Balenciaga”, depicting a catwalk in the middle of the street illustrates how anyone can show off their style and assert their creativity wherever they want. You don’t need to be on a catwalk to look good.
The lack of death is the most obvious way in which the video for “Balenciaga” diverges from its predecessors. It creates a reversal of Erykah Badu’s video, although the underlying meaning remains the same.
Rather than dying, Princess Nokia enters a small storefront that already contains five of her lavishly dressed friends. She asserts her dominance by licking one person’s face and whipping the camera with her hair. She then takes a seat in the middle of the pack and rocks back and forth with a deranged look on her face. This final image — Princess Nokia sitting on what resembles a throne surrounded by her servants — is reminiscent of The Emperor’s New Clothes. It is in connection with this text that the meaning of the video can be identified.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a story by Hans Christian Anderson about an egocentric ruler who hires two con artists to create clothes for him. They claim that their clothes will be invisible to stupid people. Not wanting to look stupid, the Emperor and all of his advisers and subjects pretend to see the clothes. Finally, a child points out that he’s naked and everyone realizes their foolishness.
The emperor walks naked through the streets because he wants to impress his subjects. He dresses the way he has been told he should and with an audience in mind. This is exactly like the people Princess Nokia criticizes in her song, and who she impersonates in the music video. She wears designer outfits because others told her that they are good and important, just like the Emperor. After taking off her clothes she acts like she is at her most fashionable and powerful when really, she’s just naked. Again, both she and the Emperor strut around naked because they ignorantly believe it to be fashionable. This could have implications of the male gaze as well; If she truly dressed as others wanted her to, and her audience was male, then she would not put anything on at all.
Rather than symbolizing the removal of layers of false identity like in “Window Seat”, the removal of clothes in “Balenciaga” represents the changing preferences of fast fashion and the constant need for attention. She is driven mad by the process and by the end she loses her mind, as shown by the visual effects and her maniacal fetal rocking.
The narrative depicts the alternative perspective in the struggle between the individual and a person controlled by groupthink. “Window Seat” is a call to action for those who have not yet asserted their individuality while “Balenciaga” is a cautionary tale to those who don’t take Badu’s advice.
Princess Nokia focuses on individuality in fashion. She stages her video like a catwalk rather than a spontaneous piece of performance art to ground the video in the fashion world. Additionally, she films it in a public space to show that fashion should be accessible. She criticizes those that dress to fit in and uses an allusion to The Emperor’s New Clothes to show how this type of groupthink leads to self-destruction.
The video fits with the song’s message; you should dress to express your individuality. It also fits into the broader context of the succession of videos that stem from “Lessons Learned” with its promotion of self-expression. Princess Nokia follows the structure and maintains a similar message while pivoting to depict the destructiveness of groupthink rather than the freedom of individuality. The video enhances the meaning of the song and is a great addition to the trilogy of individuality-themed videos.
The music videos for “Lessons Learned”, “Window Seat”, and “Balenciaga” all speak to the importance of individuality. In “Lessons Learned”, Matt & Kim show how incredibly liberating self-expression can be. Erykah Badu entered the dialogue by affirming the value of individuality. She also defines the force that stands in the way as groupthink. “Window Seat” is a depiction of the struggle between groupthink and individuality, showing the positive and negative consequences of the path towards freedom. Finally, Princess Nokia demonstrates the repercussions of conforming to groupthink, specifically in the context of fashion. She shows how people try so hard to change their appearance to fit in that they lose themselves completely. They lose their identity completely to the larger group.
Matt & Kim present a promising view of what life could be if you embrace individuality. Erykah Badu shows the difficult but rewarding journey you must go on to reach this liberating feeling. Princess Nokia presents a cautionary tale for those who don’t choose to go down this path. Together, the three videos create a well-rounded rationale to pursue individuality at all costs.
Originally published at https://colinhodgson.com on October 8, 2020.