Rock my video

by Yule Heibel on December 17, 2003

Thanks to Sheila Lennon for pointing to the news that Wesley Clark won Rock the Vote’s contest to create a video that would appeal to young people and challenge them to vote. As Sheila writes,

If you haven’t watched the videos, that may surprise you. If you have, you know that this is what did it:

Clark is sitting around a table with college students. he’s just said he’s pro-choice, believes in affirmative action, and, in the same no-nonsense voice, continues, “I don’t care what the other candidates think, I don’t think Outkast is really breaking up. Big Boi and Andre 3000 just cut solo records, that’s all” followed by a high-five to one student.

I’m just a half-observer of the election campaign, here, from my perch on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island in Canada, and I don’t have any television access at all. Therefore these videos were completely new to me, as all televised images of the candidates are. Sheila provided the link to the Rock the Vote spots, though, and I watched them all in rapid succession. I thought these micro-ads were a minor revelation, given who won and who didn’t. There’s something very interesting going on.

First, the other videos typically used a now-hackneyed montage visual style which had originally been pioneered by avantgardes in the earlier 20th century: German dadaists, Russian constructivists, even Italian futurists. It’s a visual mode that then was used by avantgarde filmmakers and novelists of the mid-20th century when they wanted to question the stability, usefulness, and controlling aspects of traditional narratives that have a beginning, middle, and end.

Montage and the disruption of narrative was a beautiful idea, sort of like having a microscope with which to view individual ideas, ideas that could now stand out starkly, without having to be bound to a chain of events that forced them to conform to a teleology of ends.

It didn’t take long, however, for montage and rupture to be co-opted by advertising, with MTV and others putting the final spike into the coffin. Montage and disruption were no longer a poetic microscope, they became a cloak which made bondage and slavery to consumerism dazzling and spectacular. Instead of causing you to question reality, montage-style advertising just convinced you that it was easier and oh-so-much hipper to open wide and swallow.

I don’t know what Clark’s winning video says about the campaign, but goddamn, it has me feeling more optimistic about “the youth” of America. And a little frightened, too. I feel more optimistic because, by choosing this video as the winner, “the youth” indicated that they seem to be way beyond the grasping grip of the advertisers who continue to pound at them with a now unrecognizable, formerly early-20th century avant-garde style. Dean’s video, for example, was way down in second-place, and rightly so: it was a ridiculous pseudo-tribal, angry-but-feel-good punch-you-in-the-viscera and slap-your-eyeballs-till-they-spin-in-your-head, but not-allow-you-to-think spectacle. Ditto Sharpton. Ditto all of them, except perhaps for Moseley-Brown’s, which was a confused assemblage of “I”-thises and “I”-thats.

Clark’s video on the other hand announced a new style, and while I was glad to see it being used by a Democratic candidate, seeing it as so clearly superior to the other crappy video spots made me sit bolt upright, because I realized that this is the approach which smart conservatives/ Republicans have been deploying.

That’s what scared me: goddamn, I thought, is it really so bad that the conservatives are coming up with the newer, the more appropriately thoughtful and critical style? (For you see, your friendly pseudo-neo-marxist host here is intensely interested in all matters of style.) Style is the vehicle of substance; “MTV-style,” used by most of the other candidates’ videos to appeal to “the youth,” is empty, it has no revolutionary substance, it’s the vehicle of consumerism and of the status quo. And it’s a huge mistake for any progressive-thinking types to think that (1) “MTV-style” has to succeed simply because it’s “hip” (’cause it ain’t, really), or (2) that conservative Republicans are dumb (’cause they ain’t, really) just because they’re not into that “cool” MTV-style. Take a look at Clark’s video.

First, you the viewer are immediately positioned on the inside of what promises to be an issue, not on the outside of some glitzy surface spectacle pumped up with a driving beat. You-the-viewer are immediately asked to engage because the video opens in mid-sentence: Clark isn’t in a close-up shot, he’s seen at mid-range, as though you and he were sitting across from one another at a cafe — which is exactly where the filming takes place. You’re one of his discussion partners, and he’s saying something. He is answering something, a question. Wait, you’re confused, you didn’t know you had a question! He’s telling you that you have a question. You stop, you think, you engage. You think, “maybe I do have a question.” Immediately, the hook is in and you’re engaged, without a single bass-driven beat-note aimed at your hip, sexualized self having been sounded. Clark’s opening gambit goes like this:

Well, to answer your questions, no, I would not have voted for the Iraq war.

Did you know you had that question? You do now, and, two seconds into the video, Clark has already succeeded in hooking you, because he has answered a question you didn’t even know you had. He’s done it calmly, because he has already placed you in that cafe. You’re sitting there now, listening to him answer your questions. You must have spoken at some point. You must have engaged already, and the video is simply picking up a thread, a stream that began a short while earlier. You’re in the middle of it. It’s not really about him, about Clark, but he’s placing you and answering your question. It’s about you, and about how you listen. You are listening to Clark.

See, that’s avantgarde strategy: to think about the spectator, the viewer, and to place her in a way that results in a new critical consciousness on the part of the spectator-viewer. Ideally, it results in thinking participation by the masses. Montage was just one way to do that, but it long ago reified into a fixed style, becoming the tired and cliched style-vehicle of advertising.

There was something really fresh in the Clark video — something canny, too, as evidenced by the references to Outkast: it’s not like Clark would be asking you really to give anything up. Things will go on as usual, but you will be able to listen to Clark…


maria December 17, 2003 at 9:17 pm

You know, I read a while ago that George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, did a study on how conservatives have hijacked both the framework for political and cultural debate by working over time to build a framework for communication. In this view then, it’s only ‘natural’ that you should see in Clark’s video a cultural style that you have identified as the hallmark of smart “conservatives/ Republicans.”

Anyway, here is some info about Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute….

[wasn’t sure how to put links in comments….]

Doug Alder December 17, 2003 at 9:49 pm

Ah you beat me to it Maria – read Lakoff’s MoralPolitics 🙂 Clark’s video is absolutely brilliant and Yule your analysis is spot on I think. The only way that the Dems can beat Bush in 2004 is by being “real” not by being flashy. It is no longer sufficient to tell the electorate you care about them and their concerns while really keeping yourself seperate- look at Dean’s piece he wasn’t of the crowd he was above the crowd being “worshipped” by them – even his attempts to ‘join” the crowd were nothing more than handshake events (or ever so “cool” fist slapping – right out of the ‘hood you know) . Clark’s video makes you believe he is one of you because it comes off as real rather than staged. It’s worked for the Republicans and it will work for Clark. As a technique it is no more “dishonest” than any other. The goal is to manipulate and manipulate it does. I think the Bush camp is far more afraid of Clark than they are Dean and, for me, that’s reason enough to hope he gets the nomination.

Joel December 18, 2003 at 3:31 am

I agree. They’ve got to come down and talk to people. They’ve got to do the door to door thing. Dean’s done some of the right things, like getting his core supporters to write personal letters to people explaining why they like Howard Dean. This explains why he has quietly surged to the forefront. But it sounds like he still has things to learn about communication.

Anonymous December 18, 2003 at 11:38 am

Clark strikes me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and I’d rather he didn’t pose my questions for me. Sounds like the opposite of engaging, sounds like the smooth marketers ability to cast the illusion with the slick surface, leaving you flattered but duped, and never having engaged anything but another dose of snake oil. It seems you end up with a similar reading in the last paragraph.

Yule Heibel December 18, 2003 at 1:30 pm

Thanks for the Lakoff reference, Maria. I had heard about his strict father/ nurturing parent dichotomy, but hadn’t read up on it further. It didn’t occur to me that I might be coming from a visual standpoint to get at something similar to what Lakoff suggested in regard to “framing” issues via language, though. Something to think about… He’s right that the neo-cons have moved ahead in political theory …and praxis.

And Bruce, right you are. My last paragraph does suggest exactly what you suspected…

Regarding Clark as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, though: I have to admit that I was appalled by the sheer stupidity of the other videos, and I’m foolish enough to be influenced by this. Even if one of those other candidates were the saviour incarnate, I’d still turn away in my head because the visual presentation is so unbelievably dumb. Thinking with a little less theoretical preference, however, I would in the interim support whoever can beat Bush, and if he or she can do it by being strategically as smart or smarter than the neo-cons, all the better.

Well, who knows what will happen. I see that Madonna now supports Clark. Aagh! I’m on record for calling her the present-day equivalent of 19th century Academic schlockartist Adolphe-William Bouguereau, an arch-manipulator of sentiment in the name of “authenticity” (gag me with a spoon). It’s just a slippery slope from the girl’s material world to any old man’s ideal republic.

Anonymous December 18, 2003 at 2:33 pm

it’s nothin but slippery slopes these days, idinit? Ah well, at least we find *some* footing here in blogland…

brian moffatt December 18, 2003 at 8:54 pm

As someone who doesn’t vote I thought the Al Sharpton message was the best. It was the message that prompted me to think – hey maybe I should vote. And that was the task wasn’t it? Get out the vote? Relating the 537 vote difference (Fla.) to the death of 300 and some odd Americans – on a first pass that’s what I took away, I’m not sure that the ad mentioned 10,000 Iraqis – made me think that maybe my vote might count.

I cringed watching the Outkast punchline in the Clark spot. And the contrived and pedantic editing – killing two birds with the prochoice affirmative action pledge on the shot of the african american woman (three birds?) was painful. And the props between Wes and the slacker was – lierally – a reach.

maria December 19, 2003 at 3:03 pm

I finally got around to watching some of the videos … and bmo has a point when it comes to getting young people off their duffs to vote. Seems that the only one not preaching from a pulpit was Al Sharpton, who unleashed some facts in … what was that … a school gym? And oy, the Lieberman spot! I needed 3 cups of coffee to wake up from the yawn-induced stupor it managed to deliver … making 30 seconds seem like 3 hours!

The Clark spot, though, had the most sohpisticated style in terms of framing issues in order to manipulate discourse.

Anonymous September 17, 2005 at 5:22 pm

Thank you for the info!

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