It’s weird–so many famous artists are singing about drugs and sex, and yet they aren’t glamorizing it, but rather giving a pretty scathing portrayal. There’s a great article over at Billboard.com that really goes into depth about the phenomena. Just to sum up, artists such as the Weeknd and Lana del Ray have been explicit about their use of them in their music but aren’t falling into the old rock n’ roll cliche of celebrating them. I for one welcome this change in attitudes that was so ingrained in the hippie and classic rock era. I’m not going to stand up at the pulpit and say “drugs are bad, m’kay,” but for god sake did music need to grow the fuck up.
Which brings us to one of my favorite music videos in recent memory. Tove Lo is an interesting artist. She’s mostly known for this single, “Habits (Stay High)”, and her other hit “Talking Body”. What’s so engrossing about both songs is 1) How long they stay in my head after hearing them, and 2) How frank they are about their subject matter. I won’t say much about my first point other than the success of these two songs appears to be isolated. I listened to her debut album Queen of the Clouds, and as much as I wanted to like and support it, found it lacking outside of these two singles.
It’s really my second point that I feel is worth exploring. So much of pop music is fluff served for everyone, the equivalent to a buffet. One of my favorite modern pop artists is Lady Gaga, but as much as I adore what she does, I find a lot of it hollow. Yes, a lot of this is by design to be ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but it can get a bit like an echo chamber after a while.
Tove Lo does hover on the edge of this predicament, but absolutely succeeds with “Habits”. She has a haunting pain in her voice as she reaches for high notes during the chorus, straining to sing “Spend my days locked in a haze / Trying to forget you babe / I fall back down”. It’s a pretty emotional song that really exploits how people can resort to extreme behavior just to avoid the unpleasantness of yearning for a lover that has rejected them.
What I like most about the song is the verses, which really just describe the narrator’s daily habits and her drug habits (hence the double reference in the title–so clever). She mentions being in a sex club (she’s from Sweden folks) and putting make up on and even throwing up twinkies in her bathtub. What could have been rote instead drips with loneliness and despair, to the point where the tension can only be relieved by the chorus.
It’s great stuff, and I could end the review there, but then I would be neglecting the masterful video that accompanies the song. Directed by Motellet Film, the director(s?) perfectly capture the whole conceit of the song in what is an engrossing depiction.
The slickness of the video, accentuated with tantalizing close ups–serves as a stark contrast to the disjointed nature of the 3rd person camera work, achieved by Tove Lo wearing a body attachment that allows the camera to keep the focus on her. Think of it like the reverse of the camera POV in the upcoming film Hardcore Henry.
Just as the narrator sings, we see our hero getting drunk and high while clearly upset over something which we can safely assume is another person from the lyrics. Yes, while zooming in on two woman’s mouths while they’re kissing looks cool and is sexy, it really feels sleazy and wrong to watch when interspersed with our narrator crying alone in a bathroom stall. That’s one of the most loneliest and depressing positions to be in.
And yet, like most complex works of art, I feel there will be a certain group of people who take the absolutely wrong idea from it. They, most likely teenagers, will think it all looks fun, getting obliterated and making out with whatever mouth is available. My only hope for them is that the video shows these people taking a taxi.
I probably sound really prudish. To clarify, I don’t have a problem with drinking, nor all drugs. I’m actually a proponent of legalizing marijuana and am on the fence with ecstasy. My real issue is with the irresponsibility people exhibit when engaged with these substances. Don’t believe me? Go to a bar and watch how many people stagger out by themselves, get in a car, and drive off into the unknown. How much destruction have they caused that we’ll never hear of?
What we’re presented with is the with the mundane mixed with the glamorous. We see our narrator get dressed, apply makeup on, get on a train, eat fries, then go to a party and hook up with people of both sexes. For every sexy shot there’s an equally boring one, and it is through this narrative structure that the director perfectly encapsulates the heart of the song. We’re just looking for that next big hit to get us through reality, whether it be sex or drugs. Right from the opening they hook us in with the body attached camera, then cut to a sexy closeup–at first a shoelace being tightened. Then more mundaness, getting the viewer constantly wanting more. Then the close ups get more frequent: an image of lips sucking on a beer bottle, glasses of alcohol, and finally the ultra erotic image of tongues slipping against each other in well coached French kisses, to the point where I don’t know whose mouth is whose, but my god are they sexually charged images for any man or woman. Just the way they’re shot in a dark color scheme the looks like shadows framing their heads as they bite their the narrator’s ear and lick down her neck.
Of course, all this ends with our narrator back home, still alone, exhausted, passing out. If only the after effects of most drugs were that tame.
The director toes a tricky line. They do the rare job of visually representing the thematics of the song while staying neutral. It reminds me so much of what Martin Scorsese has done throughout his career. Make art that entertains and yet still be meaningful. He’s often been accused of having no morals, but that’s an easy claim. It doesn’t require critical thought, just raw emotions. So it is with this music video. I can hear my stepfather already damning it as trash. I can see my nine-year-old nephew one day in his pre-teen years discovering it on YouTube and being enticed by the eroticism on display. Which is why we need critics and scholars to educate these people. Because despite its slick appeal and allure of partying, it isn’t cool. It’s hell–the antithesis to the hedonism of my fellow millennials. That a pop video can perfectly encapsulate the damnation of my generation is only a reflection of that which we value. It isn’t often that pop music can succeed in escaping it’s shameless appeal to the masses while having something to actually say. I only fear that it might fly over the heads of those who need to understand it.