music video as a social message

text: Yegor Petrov


John Legend’s video for the song “You and I” was shot as part of “Operation Girl”: a fundraising campaign for several women’s rights organizations. The director Mishka Kornai in his work praises the values of body positivity, focusing on women with diverse life experiences. Dozens of women, including the lesbian stand-up comedy star Tig Notaro, model Chrissy Teigen, actress and singer Tatyana Ali, gently but persistently contradict the dominant perception of beauty characteristic to pop-culture.

The most important participant for the social message of the video is, probably, Laverne Cox – a transgender woman, who plays the part of Sophia Burset in Orange Is the New Black series. The journey from humiliations in school, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospital and, finally, sex reassignment surgery to being nominated for an Emmy and appearing on the cover of Time magazine makes her a self-made woman in the most literal sense of the expression. You can find more about the women starring in “You and I” from the extended version of the clip: a documentary by Mishka Kornai called When I Look in the Mirror.


John Legend – You and I


Sometimes anti-utopic images are inevitable if one wants to raise awareness of social disharmony. In Vince Staples’s clip “Señorita” there is an armoured glass frontier. This transparent, but unsurpassable wall separates the disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where the inhabitants are methodically executed by firearms positioned on towers, from the ideal world, where the respectable class prospers in their knitted pullovers.

Determined social inequality, affirmed largely by the media, is the object of the Ian Pons Jewell’s criticism. The name of this British-Spanish director became widely known after his video “Disappoint you” for Jargon V.A. and Tinie Tempah with a 700-pound budget suddenly was named Best Music Video at the 2011 London Independent Film Festival, and also won the Best Urban Video nomination at the UK Music Video Awards. Another work of Jewell with a successful festival history is “La La La“ – a clip for Naughty Boy.


Vince Staples – Señorita


According to James Lavelle, a musician from U.N.K.L.E., in “Money and run” he wanted to express the vulgarity of obsession with wealth and the disgust created by the lack of restraint that money provides. This intention was implemented in a tough allegorical manner by the director Tom Haines, who previously has made clips for Devendra Banhart, Jon Hopkins and New Order.

In spite of a clearly British imagery, this video suddenly enters the archetypical dimension: Bullingdon Club is not the only (and not even the first) association that an observer gets. YouTube users in their comments mention The Wolf of Wall Street, American Psycho, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, A Clockwork Orange, the Nazis, communists, and even Czech politicians. All in all, as shrewdly noted one of the YouTube commentators, it is “not a hippy stuff”.


U.N.K.L.E. – Money and Run


A significant statement in the discussion about the responsibility of power is made by J. Cole’s “Crooked smile” – a clip based on real events. A shocking story of a seven year old girl dying as a result of a police raid in 2010 caused a wave of debate about police violence.

The rapper met the director Sheldon Candis by chance in LA airport. Candis showed him the trailer of his debut film LUV about a relationship between a teenager and his uncle, after which he received an offer to make “Crooked Smile”.

This clip became the first acting job of the singer, and, according to Candis, J. Cole managed it perfectly. “His performance is full of inner conflict, and it is non-verbal, silent acting. He is my Ryan Gosling”, – the director told the journalists after the shoot.


J. Cole – Crooked Smile


“D.I.W.S.W.T.T.D.“ of the Norwegian band Serena-Maneesh gives an unusual take on the relationship between children and adults. This typically minimalist Scandinavian video inspires instinctive horror. If in the smiling torturers of the child we easily recognize the allusion to the polite and meticulous sadists from Haneke’s “Funny Games”, than the boy turning into an octopus is already Blomkamp’s “District 9”.

It is equally striking that Kristoffer Borgli, the director, claimed that he has no idea about what this all means: he just depicted the images and scenes that came to his mind, opening doors to any interpretation. One of the possible understandings of this story is as the tragedy of “strange” children, who become asocial because of rejection in their own families.

Fairly recently Borgli took a plunge and shot his first full-length film. His mockumentary DRIB has been participating in international festivals since May 2017. One of the most interesting pieces about it is the interview dedicated to this movie in DAZED magazine.

The mockumentary genre is well-known to Borgli, if not his favorite. Five years ago his pseudo-documentary work “Whateverest” was awarded the jury’s prize at the AFI Fest. The music was written by a Norwegian composer Todd Terje. Interestingly, the clip, made as a compilation of materials from the movie, won the UK Music Video Awards in two nominations: Best Alternative Video and Best Budget Dance Video.


Serena-Maneesh – D.I.W.S.W.T.T.D


Lately Pussy Riot are especially involved in international politics. The last three videos they shot have nothing to do with the Russian agenda. “Refugees In” is dedicated to the migration crisis that engulfed Europe in 2015. Basically it is an edited version of Pussy Riot’s performance in Banksy’s Dismaland bemusement park. It was based on the imitation of clashes between the refugees and the police, and the girls themselves were singing from behind bars. It was directed by Ralf Shemerberg, known for his philosophical documentaries Problema and Poet, as well as for his ads for Lufthansa, Levi’s and Nike.

Two other videos of Pussy Riot serve as a feminist response to Donald Trump’s sexist remarks. “Straight Outta Vagina”, according to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, praises female sexuality and the superhuman might of a liberated woman. The music was recorded in collaboration with David Sitek – a famous sound producer, who has worked with such bands as TV On the Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Foals and others. “Straight Outta Vagina” is a high-quality performance with elements of comic choreography and a lot of actors. The theatre at Ace Hotel in LA was chosen as the location. The director of this video is Phillip R. Lopez, author of several shorts and commercials for Balenciaga, PacSun, Free People.

“Make America Great Again” is yet another step towards pop-sound and entertaining satire. Mocking totalitarian gestures of the new US president, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova represents five different characters. The production of the song was handled by Ricky Reed, who used to work with Snoop Dogg and Jason Derulo, and the director is the legendary Jonas Akerlund.



Pussy Riot – Refugees In