I came back from London yesterday. As the jet-lag began to lift, I thought:
“What happened in American culture while I was gone?”
First stop, VH1 where I saw this new video from Ariana Grande. Grande is so lovely she makes Audrey Hepburn look like an awkward teenager with problem skin and unfortunate hair.
But watch the video and note the performance by Iggy Azalea who comes in at the 1:50 mark.
Doesn’t Iggy, with roughly a third the video, end up owning it? Somehow, she delivers charisma while Ariana ends up looking quite a lot like Hepburn in some of her lesser roles, lovely but insubstantial.
The secret is I think clear. Iggy doesn’t care if we like her. At 2:22, she does that “Like, what?” and wrinkles her nose, but that’s the only time she courts our approval. The rest of the time, the attitude is “aren’t you ever so lucky to be watching this video?”
Ariana on the other hand flirts with the camera with a steady flow of entreaties and ingratiations. Several gestures are meant to emphasize how little and unthreatening she is. (As if she could be any smaller or less threatening.)
While in England, I had a chance to catch up with Peter Collett, a friend from years ago. (Thank you, John Deighton for putting us back in touch.) Peter is perhaps the world’s ranking expert in matters of non verbal behavior and I leave it to him to have a look at the video and this blog, and sort things out for us.
Watch this space for Peter’s remarks.
Peter (to whom, devout thanks!) writes:
“Grant, you’re absolutely right about Ariana’s flirtatious signals. There are far too many to mention, but let’s look at three of them:
First there Ariana’s “eye-popping” – when she looks into the camera she frequently widens her eyes. This makes her look more baby-like, which is why we instinctively feel protective towards her—just as movie audiences did towards Audrey Hepburn, who used the very same eye-popping gesture.
Then there’s the “neck-show”, where Ariana tilts her head back or sideways in order to expose her neck. This is a submissive gesture because it draws attention to a highly vulnerable part of her body and shows that she’s unthreatening.
Finally there’s Ariana’s repeated face-touching. People frequently touch their face when they’re feeling unsure about themselves. When they do this in our presence it boosts our confidence. In this context it’s therefore a subtle way of making viewers of the video feel good about themselves. But let’s not forget that face-touching also acts as a “pointer” – a means of directing viewers’ attention, in this case, to a soft and inviting part of the body. Did you notice that the male singer also touches his mouth repeatedly during the video? – partly to indicate that he’s not trying to steal the show, but also to mimic Ariana and suggestively advertise what’s on offer.”
Splendid. Thank you, Peter.
Clearly, it’s more than nonverbal behavior. Iggy uses a hip hop idiom where Ariana confines herself to a music from which everything vivid or powerful has been deliberately removed.
As a last note, I found this version of the Iggy Azalea Clueless remake (aka Fancy) online and I was stunned to see how much clearer the audio track is. This is the “explicit” version of the video and I think the means that the “tame” version of the video was created by “graying out” the offensive terms. This technique, versus removing or replacing, is weird and interesting. I think.
I am still fascinated by the penetration of Black Hip Hop into White pop music. For me the Black Hip Hop performer stole the video. Who is that anyway?
Good question. Anyone?
I think Iggy did make a stronger impression, but this was less due to her charisma (I mean, what charisma? stick her with Nicki Minaj or Rihanna and see what happens) and more due to two things:
One: we’re now used to hearing pop songs in which the rapping is primary and a female voice sings the hook. This means that even when a female singer gets top billing in the song, even when she’s a big star, she winds up sounding like a backup singer. This happens to J. Lo repeatedly.
Two: the cinematography of this video is scattershot and conceptually unfocused. Ariana looks less visually striking than everyone else in it. Iggy gets this interesting, high-impact animated effect background and has this very graphic makeup and most of all, huge, blonde hair, while Ariana is in a tastefully subtle outfit, hair and makeup, and is lost in a sea of backup dancers who all seem to be taller and more distinctive-looking than she is. A music video is not the place for tasteful and subtle, especially for such a petite and potentially mousy girl. She could have done with more medium close-ups, and would have benefited from being dressed in something white or silver or gold while all the dancers were dressed in plain black. Even the background– the wall– was busy and distracting; a solid color, something subdued, no stripes, no light effects, would have been better. A spotlight on Ariana would not have gone amiss. A better integration of the male rapper and the breakdancers would have helped– they do nearly hijack the video with the cuts to their close-ups. Making all of the backup dancers either male or female with uniform costumes would have lent a pleasing homogeneity and symmetry that would have given more focus to Ariana.
Listen to the song without watching the video, and see if Ariana doesn’t hold her own rather better than in the video. (If you have time for stuff like that– I can definitely believe you’ve got many better things to do.)
Kips, great analysis. Thanks, Grant
Grant, ;the other thing we are seeing here is that Ariana is playing the coy, innocent little girl. Her eyes, her clothes, her soft voice even her ‘dance moves’ are all young, whereas Iggy doesn’t ‘act’…she just is herself, strong voice, strong figure, strong words. A little girl versus a woman.
Rene, yes, you have put it better than I did. Thanks, Grant
I was going to make the same girl-vs-woman point. I’ll add in that Iggy’s voice is deeper and more mature.
Stumble across an undergrad paper. Have not yet read it but the title and abstract grabbed me. Thanks.
Google “CRITIQUE OF THE APPROPRIATION OF BLACK CULTURE BY WHITE SUBURBAN YOUTH”