February 10, 2014

“Midnight Memories”: Fondness for the ’80s, Apathy for the Early 2000s

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It’s time to start talking about music videos again. It has been nearly a decade of dead air — MTV cancelled Total Request Live in 2008; the VMAs’ only purpose since 2003 has been to humiliate Britney Spears or Taylor Swift by  turn, and Wired, not really known for sensational journalism, ran a headline reading “Are Music Videos Relevant in 2008? Only to Idiots.”


However, as is rarely the case, the Internet and Kanye have stepped in to save the day. In 2010, “Runaway,” announced the return of the epic music video — clocking in at thirty-four minutes, thirty-two seconds, that ode to ekphrasis (and scumbags) has 14 million VEVO views and is, in my not-super-impartial opinion, the necessary precursor to Beyoncé’s The Visual Album in 2013.

The partnering of YouTube 100 and VEVO, as well as the increased media-savvy of contemporary artists, has spawned a spontaneous upsurge in music video relevance and attendance.  Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus played tug-of-war with the VEVO 24-hour views record this year, Mumford & Sons publically (and virally) parodied themselves in the official video for “Hopeless Wanderer” and our beautiful, beloved, beholder-of-America’s-favorite-belly-button announced her third act comeback with a stunning piece of videography entitled “Work B**ch.” Whatever else you may feel about One Direction, they’re an important player in this game and last week’s release of “Midnight Memories” is a notable moment in the movement.

A huge portion of the One Direction appeal is predicated on the fact that their tween fans have no knowledge of musical history. The lead single for Midnight Memories has significant resemblances to “Baba O’Riley;” “Does He Know?” should be familiar to the slightly-older faction of the 1D demographic that was exposed to Rick Springfield via 13 Going on 30, and “Diana” is undeniably a sugar-coated The Police track. That is an observation and not an indictment, as most of the pop-rock legends whose footsteps they follow (such as Pete Townshend and Paul McCartney) have made public statements somewhere along the lines of “Hey, it’s all fair in three-chord progressions and haircuts,” ostensibly aware in their post-heyday maturity that pop music is nothing but simulacra and that contemporary culture is undeniably infatuated with the throwback.

Nowhere is this musical history pastiche mentality better exemplified than in “Midnight Memories.” The song itself runs step-for-step with “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and the video is in total keeping with this homage to cock rock legacy.  The first shot is of a basement party, presumably from the outtakes of Freaks and Geeks — replete with Party City decor, bowls of Funyuns, the type of face-sucking the 1D hairstyles render sort of implausible and a dour-faced girl who isn’t having any of Niall Horan’s charm (WHAT?) — and the second shows Harry Styles triumphantly jump-starting the fête by flipping a vinyl copy of “Midnight Memories” onto a turntable.

Coerced (via shouting) into watching the video, Sun writer James Rainis ’14 observed, “They tried to do a standard, over-the-top, Beasties Boys-type party video.” True — says Liam Payne’s wardrobing — if the Beastie Boys had ever heard of Tumblr. The entire chorus section of the video is 100 percent gif-able antics (there is no contemporary music act that better understands social media) — showing Harry Styles miming “Call me” at a bunch of golden girls on motorized scooters, Zayn Malik dousing a Kebab restaurant with a fire extinguisher and culminating in the grand theft of a Thames River police boat.

Though I’m guessing the romanticization of privileged white-boy crime in the latter may have felt like a mistake in light of the Biebs scandal and scandal-backlash and scandal-backlash-backlash, the rest of the video does its work towards billing One Direction as a post-boyband boyband — somewhat edgier than their predecessors (tattoos!), with an origin story that Drake would kill (well, probably not “kill,” maybe like “threaten,” or “whine at”) for and a believable genuineness that can’t be manufactured.

“Midnight Memories,” joins a roster of One Direction videos that are diverse in production and plot but absolutely one-note in sentiment. That sentiment is: joy! (Shut up, let me finish.) What’s different about One Direction when you line them up against 98 Degrees, or the Backstreet Boys, or even NSYNC (I am loathe to lump them because clearly one spawned Justin Timberlake and the others … did not spawn Justin Timberlake) is that they target a radically different element of adolescence.

Boy bands of our braceface days were polished and pained — they were sex objects who were clearly tortured souls and they catered to angst and morosity. One Direction still sells sex, but it is much more fun than all that heartbreak and iced tips, and it is much more cool than color-coordination and choreography. Swagger mixes seamlessly with harmlessness in all of their music, but especially in this track: while the lyrics  entreat “Five-foot-somethin’ with the skinny jeans, don’t look back, baby, follow me,” the video shows a way bigger interest in palling around than getting some.

They seem like real kids. Real kids who got the luckiest break in the world. They cultivate that image whenever possible — on their extremely prolific Twitter accounts, in their sales-record-shattering 2013 concert movie This is Us (Ha. And the Backstreet Boys are..?) and most notably in an eight-hour Google+ hangout with fans featuring slice-of-1D-life video clips (most importantly: Niall Horan’s menopause-reversing dance to “Talk Dirty to Me,” a chronicle of the band’s daily workout routine and ample footage of that H-Styles butterfly tatt). The line between the commodity and the reality is so totally blurred, in “Midnight Memories” and in their whole marketing scheme, it is virtually impossible to point it out.

In all, “Midnight Memories” is bewildering (the first time I watched it I was so confused by the plotline I legitimately started looking for Illuminati symbolism) but it is also bursting at the seams with charm. In the age of social media, One Direction is inarguably at the forefront of musical acts that are taking advantage of their capacity to interact directly with fans and pull the video hits and dollars straight out of them. MTV may be a “reality”-programming-riddled spectre of its taste-shaping past but that VEVO view-ticker is the new Carson Daly.