List of Demands

A video selfie of raw but exuberant rage

Ok, enough already. We’re gonna have to talk about selfies.  What exactly is this phenomenon sweeping through our culture? Why are we so obsessed with ourselves? Can we please stop posting photos of our own faces, over and over and over (ad infinitum?) I kinda get it… nearly all of us have smartphones now, and if we don’t, then we have a camera-phone, or a laptop, or a tablet with a rear-facing AND front-facing camera, or three hundred other kinds of image capturing technology. Often we have one device with multiple cameras, each with a couple levels of resolution, all so we can take pictures of ourselves and our friends looking into our device from EVERY and ANY side of whatever the device might be. And we like to take pictures of ourselves, generally, and most specifically when we feel good about how we look and what we are doing. And we expect our friends to do the same.

OK then… YOLO, friends, let’s capture ourselves in our youthful grace before it all slips away. But in fact, are we not simply looking ourselves in a solipsistic fun-house mirror, reflecting a deliberately self-enhanced version of reality that is, truthfully, a fabrication?

Which brings me to tonight’s video. Created for the song “List of Demands (Reparations)” by Saul Williams, this is the kind of music you may want to pump up a little (and by that, I mean… turn that volume meter up up up, at least to 11, as they say.) This song is chaotic, metallic, and in-your-face, spinning the proverbial camera around to look you, the viewer, straight in the eye and face you down with cold, hard, intensity. Williams opens the show with a shot of his hands facing the camera palms-forward, obscuring our view of his tired, angry eyes and bright, glowing, white teeth, and maniacal stare. His rhymes are frenetic, caustic, and quite direct. This guy is MAD.

Now, watch what happens for the first 50 seconds of the video… it is an extended selfie in video form. Williams pronounces every word of his lyrics with deliberation and pointedness, and with violent fury. “I want my money back / I’m gonna drown it in your fat / You got me on my knees prayin’ for everything you lack.” He shakes his face and opens his eyes widely at surprising moments, projecting wildness and an unleashed rage. But as the playtime of the video extends, longer, we begin to see other faces, and particularly those of his female friends. Wearing hats, glasses, afros and ironic, cold expressions on their faces, they are presumably the cohort of Mr. Williams. At about :35, the party opens up (if this were dubstep, I would say, “drops.”)  With the screen locked on Williams face, moshing and jumping and jostling, we’re treated to a rare view of chaos as it ensues.

It’s not entirely that I refuse to embrace selfie culture, merely that I find it facetious and narcissistic, and rather offensive. I understand it, but deliberately reject it. Why insist upon smiling, idealized images of ourselves in our public profiles, whether those be online or off? Why do we have to pretend, all the time, that everything in our worlds is sunshine and flowers and rainbows and unicorns? Clearly (to me), things are not this way. And what I like about this video, I suppose, is that it is up-front about its rage, and honest about the emotion Williams is trying to convey. We are watching an angry black man express his rage, and visibly enjoy the verve, vivacity, power, and movement, and passion it inspires in him. And honestly, I think that’s pretty damned cool.

The thread of the lyrics are difficult to interpret. They are poetic, and certainly figurative, and certainly abstract. It is unclear at times who is talking to whom, and what Mr. Williams’ demands are exactly. But there is clearly a one-on-one dialogue happening here, as though it were Williams and an unseen adversary facing each other on either side of a boxing ring, exchanging blows, and there is nothing the innocent or concerned observer can do but watch the scenario play out and hope for a positive resolution. Is it one individual facing off with one other, or is it a collective looking outwards, and inviting the adversary in? I am not the one who can say. But the significance of a few visual cues bears pointing out… An extensive rack of vinyl records lining one wall of the empty house we see in the background of the video. A single chandelier. An intentional use of facial movement and gesture to express frustration and cathartic release. Dancing men, and women, in close quarters to each other, and close-ups of hair and skin. Physicality. Motion. Energy. Rage.

I like to think of this video as a microcosm of selfie culture flipped on it’s head, resulting in the polar opposite tone and effect. Controlled anger, it is implied, may not be all bad, as we are so often trained to believe by our mainstream culture, and blissful but ignorant happiness may not be all good, as we might have otherwise imagined. The blurred, low-quality visual style that matches the heavy feedback of the music and nearly rock-and-roll sounding punk drum beats top off the overall effect.

Is this video a cry for help, or an expression of independence and self-determination? I cannot answer that question, but I may respectfully venture a guess. In its own way, it is both, a yin to the yang of the smiling selfie, so to speak. And therein, I think, rests it’s genius.

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