There is an image attached to this blog post. It’s a screenshot from “Mouse Trouble,” an award-winning 1944 episode of the classic American cartoon Tom and Jerry, in which the famous frenemies at one point find themselves reading Tom’s new instruction manual, “How To Catch A Mouse.” It’s one of the more memorable moments in animation history. But it’s not the context of this particular screenshot that’s important. Of note is the fact that this image has been given the “Instamatic” treatment. The blues and whites of the original scene have been replaced with a layer of incandescence: Now the shot is waifish and nostalgic; it looks like the filament of a cultural memory, some magical, gauzy afterimage. I did that. I did it in under a minute with Pixlr-o-matic, an image editing program that makes ordinary pixels wax poetic as if they’d been taken with an Instamatic camera. But what did I achieve by mining the cultural archive? That twinkling coat of postmodernism is pretty, but is there a message beneath it? I asked similar questions after watching the video for singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey’s single “Video Games.”
Del Rey’s detractors–Del Nayers, as I’ve heard them called–often can’t say why exactly they don’t care for her self-made music video. Simply put though, the vid can be viewed as an example of postmodernism gone wrong. Teenagers on mopeds, tripping drunken starlets, neon cowboy signs, families in swimming pools, pressmen snapping pictures, skateboarders wiping out, skyscrapers on the horizon, and yes, vintage cartoons: These are all in the video, included almost perfunctorily as features of the American subconscious. But what do these individual images–or more accurately, video clips–say about that subconscious? How do they speak to one another, and to us?
Slices of Americana are slices of Americana. That’s how they are unified. Producing media that mashes these slices together is po-mo, for sure, but only reiterates an obvious reality. It’s misguided to say these slices gain new meaning or profundity because a singular song plays as they are presented. Fleeting youth, breathless urbanity, ‘traditional’ family values, disappointing idols–which of these notions does “Video Games” dispel or create anew? It does neither, of course. It merely shows us these things. The “Video Games” video is analogous to my taking the featured Tom and Jerry still, raiding our cultural heritage for a few more photographic moments–war veterans parading through the Canyon of Heroes, for example, or maybe children on rollercoasters at Disneyworld–and applying the same quick Pixlr-o-matic filters to each one, eventually marketing them all for mass consumption in the form of a coffee table book. The result would be a hubristic collage with little meaning for which I would expect a cultural backlash.
This, I feel, is partly the reason why such ire has been directed at Del Rey’s video for “Video Games” since its release. It’s a visual mashup without a message, or at best a trite one. And unlike sports, which as I’ve argued can and should be appreciated (at least on occasion) “without commentary,” a music video is not a bona fide expression of real life. Real life is hard-wired with innumerable messages that we discover. Something that is created is not inherently worth experiencing, and therefore has an obligation to do more than present consumers with a smattering of disparate cultural artifacts–artifacts that often mean something clearer when they are presented individually than when they are presented in groups.
That’s not to say that Del Rey, in other ways, doesn’t have her finger on the pulse of postmodernism. The ‘p-word’ has for decades bedeviled academia, but one thing most theorists agree on is that postmodernism is a reconciliation between high and low society. Fredric Jameson notes in “Postmodernism and Consumer Culture” that “many of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated precisely by that whole landscape of advertising and motels, of the Las Vegas strip, of the late show and Grade-B Hollywood film” (14). Doesn’t it sound like Jameson, in 1982, had just peered into the future and seen Del Rey’s video? He goes on to say that parody, or the nuanced mockery of cultural objects, has given way to “pastiche,” which is stylistic imitation “without parody’s ulterior motive, without the satirical impulse, without laughter”; “speech in a dead language”; “blank parody” (16). Pastiche is a product of postmodernism, of its desire to mix times and places and zeitgeists, but also represents the worst things about it. Style for the sake of style–pastiche–is as meaningless as the Tom and Jerry snapshot I reworked. Little better is showing slivers of reality without interpreting them. And unfortunately for Del Rey, her video for “Video Games” does both.
All side photos courtesy Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games” music video.