Fri October 18, 2013
A Remake Of D'Angelo's 'Untitled' Video Asks Still-Unanswered Questions
Originally published on Mon October 21, 2013 12:13 pm
In the wake of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball" it's become obvious that nothing in 2013 gets people taking about a music video more than naked women. And, as we know from the rare movies like Shame that dare to include it without aiming for laughs, full-frontal male nudity is way, way more transgressive. So it makes sense that now some crazy yet canny act would remake R&B's most infamously clothing-free guy clip, D'Angelo's notorious 2000 hit "Untitled (How Does It Feel)," and that this act would be emo-pop band Panic! at the Disco.
Like the original, the Panic! video for "Girls/Girls/Boys" is one continuous shot filmed against a black background. As the camera backs away from its introductory close-up, frontman Brendon Urie reflects more of the lighting's harsh glare, and as more skin is revealed and the camera stops to position Urie exactly like "Untitled" framed D'Angelo just north of his pubic region, an unavoidable thought comes to mind, one far different than those prompted by "Untitled":
This guy is really, really, really white.
Muscle Shoals — a current documentary about Alabama recording studios that were hugely popular in the '60s and '70s — explores how black singers, white producers and integrated session bands created indisputably soulful classics amidst lingering segregation. It's one thing to read that Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" or Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1000 Dances" or Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Do You)" involved white producers and players, but it's another to feel the force of those songs while contemplating nerdy white dudes testifying in thick southern accents akin to such famous bigots as Alabama's own George Wallace. The takeaway is that superhuman talent can transcend everything — particularly when the mainstream media isn't looking.
Panic! at the Disco doesn't approach the greatness of those Muscle Shoals "Swampers," but don't let its boy-band cuteness fool you into thinking its music isn't clever: Pretty. Odd., their lushly orchestrated 2008 opus, awaits rediscovery by future power-pop generations. Tensely catchy, "Girls/Girls/Boys" is typical of their bolder Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die!, which just entered the charts at #2. Its lyric addresses a closeted bisexual woman for whom the singer has conflicted feelings. First Urie proclaims, "I don't ever wanna be your boyfriend." Soon he's suggesting she "push another girl aside and just give in," presumably to him. Then the chorus declares, "Girls love girls and boys / And love is not a choice."
"I believe that you can't control who you are," Urie explained from Burbank's Bob Hope Airport en route to Las Vegas for a hometown record release concert last week. "It's something that I've experienced myself, that girls do love girls and boys. Girls are just more sexual in nature, much more so than guys."
Like Brandon Flowers in fellow Vegas-born band The Killers, Urie was raised Mormon, and although he married his wife last April, he can comment on homophobia first-hand: any emo band that traffics in the drama-club tropes of Panic!'s 2006 hit "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" gets heaps of gay-bashing vitriol hurled their way, regardless of their orientation, as the frequency of "gay" and "fag" in the comments on their videos attest.
"A lot of times people want to label something just to make themselves feel comfortable. They wanna call this person gay or this person straight. I have had similar experience with homosexuality, with bisexuality, and that's something I feel comfortable talking about. It's not something anyone should have to hide, and that goes along with the message of the song, that it's important to know who you are, to be able to be proud of that, and have the courage behind your convictions. People can say whatever they want; it doesn't matter unless you let it affect you. That's an important lesson I had to learn with the band," says Urie.
That's a lesson D'Angelo learned the hard way. "The subject of academic articles and endless on- and offline discussions, the 'Untitled' video has become so iconic in terms of the history of black male sexual representation that it's almost impossible to think about the song as an independent entity outside of its visual marketing," writes scholar Jason King in his liner notes to last year's vinyl reissue of Voodoo, the singer's sultry and experimental second album. "For all of Voodoo's claims to realness and authenticity, D'Angelo's imaging, while rooted in promise, had been in some ways a charade, an unsustainable performance of black masculinity gone awry."
By releasing such a self-objectifying video, one that set straight women and gays swooning but also prompted plenty of homophobia from hetero guys not accustomed to a well-built African-American man displaying that much sweaty skin while regarding the camera — hence them — like a lover, the singer found himself on the sharp end of a different kind of vitriol. Subjected to the hyper-sexualization of black men that compromises any power they might achieve and turns them into porn stars, D'Angelo became, as King writes, "recognized in the culture as more of a bachelor stud than a serious musician, and his recognition of that misplaced respect may have been deleterious to his confidence and psychological health."
Think of that scene in Django Unchained when Jamie Foxx is shackled and hanging upside down like a slab of beef. Quentin Tarantino ramps up the humiliation by shooting it as Russ Meyer would've, as S&M, as exploitation. That's what happened to D'Angelo. No wonder he split like Dave Chappelle.
King puts it politely in the Voodoo reissue, but as his notes recount, D'Angelo was henceforth treated like a chocolate-flavored Chippendales stripper, sending his life and career into a tailspin. First he cancelled tour dates. Then he cancelled albums. Then there were drug charges, a car accident and another arrest, this time for soliciting an undercover police officer for oral sex. Voodoo's successor, James River, was scheduled for 2009, but more recording took place in 2010, 2011. In January 2013, collaborator ?uestlove told Billboard that the album was "99% done" and would be submitted the following month. This past summer D'Angelo cancelled concerts due to a "medical emergency." Currently, James River, or whatever he's now calling what would be his only album of new material in 13 years, has no release date.
Not even Billy Squire's "Rock Me Tonight" — a hilariously inept 1984 video featuring the hard rock singer flouncing around a garishly lit satin-sheet-covered bed in a pink tank top with homo-non-erotic results — has destroyed a career the way that "Untitled" undid D'Angelo, even though Squire's promo vid is routinely (and rightly) considered the worst of all time. Recreating such a damaging clip didn't faze Urie in the slightest.
"Even when I was a kid, I liked being able to throw myself out there to make anybody else feel comfortable," he says. "I didn't mind being the scapegoat to break the tension in the room."
Despite the lyric's sexual content and Urie's own nakedness, the Panic! clip isn't particularly sensual. More than twice the speed of "Untitled" and without that song's woozy ebbs and flows, "Girls/Girls/Boys" is more of an interrogation than a seduction. Unlike D'Angelo, the less muscular but no less lean Urie is clearly extroverted; there's not a moment when he doesn't appear perfectly content to have his crack exposed. But which difference explains YouTube's requirement that you confirm your age to watch D'Angelo's video and makes no such demand before serving Urie's version?
As the song's bridge approaches, the camera follows his retracting hand for the video's tightest close-up as the guitars build, suddenly fall momentarily silent, and then start up again for the chorus while bangs greased back to suggest D'Angelo's cornrows flick flatteringly before his eyes. Urie is acting; he gesticulates like a rock star, not a lover. Right before the end, he reaches out, both hands to the camera this time, and again brings it in. Running trembling fingers down his cheeks, he'd be chewing the scenery if there were indeed scenery to chew. But nothing speaks louder than Urie's paleness: It's his skin's striking pallor — not its nudity — that addresses the tension D'Angelo introduced.
Caucasian musicians take on African-American styles constantly, but rarely do they go this far to recreate black material without making the slightest attempt to look or sound or behave "black." In the wake of Cyrus and Thicke framing their button-pushing moves with uncomfortably thick streaks of blackness via burlesque twerking and misogynist, street-slang-y lyrics, that's actually refreshing. Indeed, everything here — from the rigidity of the song's early '80s post-punk groove to the Christ-like sweeping arm gestures reminiscent of Depeche Mode's Dave Gahan — reflects shiny white surfaces that contrast with the depth of his model's more nuanced blackness.
Emphasizing unambiguous dazzle over shade and shadow, "Girls/Girls/Boys" doesn't approach the vulnerability that still makes "Untitled" so unsettling. At times D'Angelo looks not just physically naked but emotionally undressed as well. When he sings "I wanna take you far away from here baby," he's not suggesting a purely sexual destination, but a place that's also spiritual, one beyond the heavens, beyond his meticulously sculptured body; a place that knows no suffering, no racial divisions, where there's no threat of death or departure, no pain, no beginnings or endings or punishing gym regimens — only love. "Do you know what I'm talking 'bout baby?" he pleads at the song's conclusion. Yes, those of us answer who are not afraid to be asked such a direct existential question from a naked man in a still-singular video. Yes, we do.