I recently had the profound pleasure of spending a quiet evening at the normally wild and crazy Acme studios in Brooklyn with my dearest friend Rachel Trachtenburg, her mother Tina, and Acme’s brigadier general, Shawn Patrick. After a dinner and a movie of nachos and Sidney Lumet’s Network (try this as soon as you can), I was tasked with sharing a few of my favorite music videos. Most, unsurprisingly, were received well — Rihanna’s Spike Lee/Keith Herring/Warhol/Basquiat send-up Rude Boy and Beyonce as bored/scorned housewife/Marilyn Monroe in Why Don’t You Love Me? are both incredibly fun and really smart cultural homage — but my very favorite video of the year, Robyn’s pitch-perfect (as far as I’m concerned) Call Your Girlfriend, was roundly rejected.
I’m not surprised the Trachtenburgs didn’t like it: in every incarnation for as long as they’ve existed, they’ve embodied a sort of anti-pop sensibility. Their music is smart, sophisticated, daring and different. One of the reasons I jumped to make Dumb Dumbs – Greg Hanson’s truly weird debut video for Rachel’s band, SUPERCUTE! — is the exhilaration of doing something really, profoundly different. Greg and the Trachtenburgs couldn’t be ‘normal’ if they tried — and they don’t. For people with such an eye and ear for the messy, complicated, frenetic, unexpected, and bizarre, what interest could Robyn’s clean, simple, catchy, perfectly engineered product hold?* Still, I feel the need to defend Robyn against the accusation that every character in Dumb Dumbs would surely level at her: namely that she’s just more of the same, or worse, boring.
Call Your Girlfriend is perhaps the millionth example of the single-shot music video, a reaction to the frenzied editing of the late MTV era that relies on the theatrical treatment of time to render whatever complicated spectacle — be it Beyonce’s impossible hip thrusts or a marching band hidden in a field — more impressive by virtue of its unfolding uninterrupted, the video acting as proof by photographic documentation. But Call Your Girlfriend doesn’t utilize the single-shot for the normal spectacular: Robyn dances alone in an empty warehouse towards a (very) handheld camera with only sporadic club lights as support. Robyn’s dancing is somehow simultaneously silly and incredibly alluring: she don’t give a fuck. And there in lies the video’s genius: Robyn’s comfort in front of the camera, and apparent disregard for what you may think of her dance moves, lends the video an extraordinary intimacy. With no one else in the space, it’s clear: she’s dancing for you.
And that’s it. What I love about Call Your Girlfriend (both the song and the video) is what I love about all good pop, especially classic Hollywood: the incredible subtlety and craft needed for the form to completely disappear into the content. Every decision in Call Your Girlfriend — the imperfect motion of the camera, the lack of editing and backup dancers, the crazy lights — serves to bring Robyn’s charisma and energy to the fore. It’s a visceral experience, and it works.
And then there are the little touches — the delayed reveal of Robyn’s shoes, the moment (at 1:20) when Robyn dips backwards and the camera moves sympathetically — that betray how well-conceived and carefully executed the video really is. At the end of the video, there’s a moment of dead space between the song ending and Robyn clearing the frame where she steps up and, suddenly in almost alarming proximity, takes a deep breath, wipes her nose, and smiles. It’s much like the ending of Single Ladies – in which we watch Beyonce catch her breath before breaking into a laugh — and it serves the same purpose: to remind us that the performer we’ve just watched is actually human. Contrary to most indications, Beyonce does need to catch her breath, and though Robyn’s dancing isn’t the same sort of physical feat, it’s still an act of performing bravado, and the disarming human contact at the end makes it clear that she enjoyed it as much as you did.
The principle characteristic Robyn embodies in the video is, of course, grace; an easy, tossed-off gracefulness that says we just used the first take, I just threw these clothes on, and I didn’t wash my hair this morning. It’s called cool, and it’s at the core of all good pop: it’s both of Bieber’s haircuts, Kanye’s backpack, and Justin Timberlake’s dick in a box. It’s Robert Downey Jr.’s acting career. It’s the photos of Obama in college, smoking a cigar. And it takes a number of the smartest artists and marketers in the world to keep it up, to keep it current, to reinvent it for every generation. For every JT there are a million stale Drakes and Maroon 5s.
All of this is not to belittle the Trachtenburgs’ talent. It takes a completely different sensibility to color effortlessly inside the lines than to utterly disregard them, and I am in constant awe of the courage and aplomb it takes to be truly different. But there is something pretty remarkable, too — and pretty unexpected — about stripping everything down, stepping up, and making everyone want to be your girlfriend, in the world of cool.
*Although they appreciated Robyn’s taste in clothing, of course.