Girl Band’s new single, Shoulderblades, is one of the best songs of the year so far, a pummelling and ascendant noise-rock dirge with an uncertain structure that draws repeated listens like water from a tap. This piece is not about the song. It is, however, about the music video. Music videos have long been an underrated artform, and whilst some are simply vehicles for the song, some, such as Pulp’s This Is Hardcore (dir. Doug Nichol), and Grace Jone’s Corporate Cannibal (dir. Nick Hooker), operate distinctly as works of significance in her own right.
Shoulderblades is one of these videos. Directed and choreographed by Bob Gallagher, it utilises dance, lighting, and expression to create a uniquely cinematic space that dissects traditional ‘arty’ signifiers, pushing them aside to create something familiar, yet uneasy. It opens with a shot of a young androgynous-looking dancer (actually female artist Onna Doherty) in a white bodysuit, turned away from the camera on her knees. The camera is placed upside down and then pivots round whilst panning inwards, a relatively common technique, utilising eye-catching symmetry and bold licks of colour (in this case a deep blue). The dancer turns her head to face the camera, and then, in the first indication that this video will be doing something unusual with the creation of space, turns her head upside down towards us, and tilts up briefly, so it is offscreen.
The camera then cuts so that the dancer is head on, talking to the camera, but only after a small pause, enough to notice but not enough to disrupt the flow of movement. These edits permeate the video, where the action and the editing are misaligned by a fraction, and the effect is both disorienting and compelling. It creates a space whereby the movement of the performer and the movement of the camera seem to be operating distinctly, attuned yet separate. This reflects both the dissonant tones of the song itself, but also works as a technique in its own right. The performer turns on the spot, in a ballet-like motion, but this once more disrupts an established element, the symmetry. The performer’s face, too, adds a note of uncertainty, as she seems both scared and dominant, confrontational yet shirking.
Then, the performer’s face contorts into a look of possessed pain, and she rises from the ground. The lighting turns red, and then back to blue. And then, a technique is revealed which marks the video as unique; the camera cuts to a conventional shot, akin to a shot (reverse-shot) you see in a dialogue between to characters. The performer is looking, or perhaps reacting. And then, as if to reflect this newfound expression of space, the performer (in long shot) holds out her arms and moves to the side, then circles as if staking, or discovering, newly charted territory.
Then the technique repeats; the performer looks to one side, her right, and the camera frames her as if in a shot-reverse shot. Then the performer looks to her left, and the technique reoccurs. The expression of the performer, too, changes, from casual to concerned, and it is clear that the performer is utilising the stylistic signifiers of a fractured mind to convey a multitude of emotions that converge on one point, perhaps schizophrenia, although that reading seems cheap and a little reductive.
The scenes that follow further this interplay between personal space and crafted cinematic space. The dancer throws her head offscreen, and then again, each time bringing the camera down with her, and the performers throws herself into a number of different motions, such as arms crossed, signifying pride, and falling forward, signifying unbalance. The cumulative effect is akin to Kierkegaard’s observation as anxiety being a paralysing awareness of choice. In a video that has played with the possibilities of open space, disassembling the lazy one point perspective tableau that so many modern works rely on, it is only natural that the performer, who is in undulating tandem with the camera movements of the video, would be overwhelmed by this untethering from convention.
In one virtuoso piece of movement, she addresses the camera, and then her hand (as if disembodied) reaches up and grabs her by the chest, and turns her round. The camera cuts to a completely 180, once more with the timing a hair off what is usual, and it indicates in one implied movement a complete survey of the available space. The effect is agoraphobic; a certain claustrophobia not at an enclosed space, but at an open one with no aim, yet a desire to occupy it. Following this, the performer addresses the camera in medium long shot, smiling and with her arms out in a jocular manner. Suddenly, the smile turns to sadness and the performer emulates tears.
In another about-turn, the performer moves towards the camera, but her disembodied hand pulls her backwards. The camera pauses incrementally before it tracks her backwards, and every time the performer approaches the camera in a new direction, her hands pull her back. From here the beat of the song kicks in, and the techniques of the previous two minutes intensify and become hyper-kinetic. The performers pulls herself upwards and downwards, and in one remarkable piece of virtuosity, indicates a cut where there is none, pushing herself down just outside the frame of the video, and then pulling herself up and entirely changing her body language and movements, along with a sharp change in the lighting.
Looking back over the screengrabs from this video, I realise that every effect that the video has is a direct result of a certain duality that is best characterised as bifurcation. The video has a slippery quality to it; just as the viewer begins to track a certain strand of movement, you are violently jerked one way. When you return to the original pattern of movement, it is disturbed and warped, recognisable but different. The video compounds these movements, ratcheting up the intensity. I do not mean to be disingenuous; a lot of this is down to the incredible structure of the song the piece is based on. But as much as it is based on the structure, it is not a faithful recreation. In the same way the movements sit uneasily with the camera placement, the movements of the performer feel pulled, against her will, along with the flow of the song.
In the same way that it bifurcates, it oscillates, and ultimately dovetails. These movements continue and layer herself on top of one another, a sort of hyper-specific, differential repetition that recalls itself in a random order, evoking pain, hilarity, and a flippant arrogance towards suffering. When the song devolves into a nauseating reverb effect, a digital technique mirrors this, causing the performer to physically reverberate. Just as she is stood entirely central, symmetrical, she moves off-centre. She moves backwards and forwards, penetrating the boring 2D plane that so many videos rely on. The camera moves top-down, the performer hurls herself upwards and downwards, and then at the climax she uses the disembodied arm effect to throw her head into the ground.
A smash cut to black and the performer awakes in a pool of her own blood, which is to be expected, although even this is framed in such a way as to make the blood seem like the wall meeting the floor. What follows from here is a disorienting display of technique and affect. The lighting is now black and white. The performers blows into the blood and looks at her distorted reflection in it, then she rises. Her face distorts across the screen, the various tensions of the previous four minutes distilled into a single essence and portrayed in one disorienting technique. She faces the camera once more, and she touches her bloodied face, but this time there is a calm to her movements, perhaps evoking post-coital stillness. The violence has built to a point and peaked, and now is the time for aftercare. The performer smiles, as if relishing in everything she has done, and though her movements remain violent, there is a general sense that she are spent. She leans forward and reaches out, and then, face visibly weary, she address the camera sternly one last time.
The techniques of the video, ultimately, culminate in an impression that is not so much dissociative as hyper-associative. Every single movement seems twinned with the one that came before it, despite existing almost as opposites. The video mirrors the Deleuzian model of information, the Rhizome. The Rhizome is characterised by various points of entry and exit, with no beginning or end, a sort of proto-information superhighway which cuts through various sections of art, culture, history, and so on. This video is a micro-Rhizome, taking a series of movements and overlaying her with one another, the information from one passage of movement spilling over into another.
On a less conceptual level, the video also operates, as mentioned, as a direct riff on, or critique of, the tired techniques of various ‘arthouse’ media. These techniques initially occurred in cinema, popularised by Wong Kar-Wai’s early works (Chungking Express, Fallen Angels), but have since been co-opted by a corporate media that seeks to pillage artistic expression and turn it into signifiers. They are no longer artistic choices, just hollow techniques to be regurgitated for money-making purposes.
This video, refreshingly, turns and reworks these techniques into something bold and original. It begins by presenting, and then skewering, popular ‘bisexual lighting’, artificial symmetry, and hyper aestheticization/fetishization of arbitrary elements. This video is, cliché though it is to say, deeply real. From the un-made up face of the performer to the anguished facial expressions and movements, and the way the camera carves out pockets of space with each cut and off-beat edit, the cumulative effect is a, somehow, realistic portrayal of a heightened multiplicity of emotions.
It is one thing to create a work that complements a song of the highest order. It is a whole other thing to create a music video that is equally as distinct as that song, in distinctly different ways. The song, just as a song, represents a reinvention of the band’s techniques that indicates artistic growth and, perhaps, maturity. The video, as a video, is one of the more intelligent uses of space in a cinematic way than any I have seen this year. That the two can exist in tandem with one another is quite remarkable.