Routledge
Textual Analysis

Textual Analysis

Rock This Party Popular Music Video, by Stephen Hill

Rock This Party (Everbody Dance Now)
2006
Directed by Denis Thibaud

This is an example of a case study on popular music that includes a textual analysis of a music video. The case study explores a number of related issues and debates after analysing this example. The level is clearly sophisticated and is written above AS level, but this is a good example of how popular culture can be analysed in an academic manner. Why don't you have a go at analysing a video of your own in a similar manner?

Introduction

Of the many music videos that have been made since the launch of YouTube in 2005 it is perhaps Denis Thibaud's promotional clip for Bob Sinclar's Rock This Party (2006) that will be remembered as a landmark production. A parodic anthology of popular music video history, Rock This Party captures both the retrospective sensibility of the contemporary music scene and the creative possibilities of recycling. Unlike other key moments in the history of popular music video, Strawberry Fields Forever (1967) by The Beatles for example, or Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) by Queen), Rock This Party does not challenge the grammar of music video production. And, indeed, in this direction, OK GO's infamous self-produced treadmill sequence for Here It Goes Again (2006) is far more representative of recent shifts towards a more ‘DIY aesthetic’. Productions such as these foreground the creativity of the individual producer and in many cases restate cinematic conventions that can be traced back to silent film and Hollywood musicals: the relationship between sound and image being pivotal to the genealogy of the genre. However, by rejecting the mainstream values of music video, productions aimed at the post-MTV market also serve to reinforce those conventions. As a consequence, understanding the difference between the way in which a multi-million dollar production makes meaning and a DIY creation is often central to the pleasure a YouTube specific music video offers its audience.

For all its revolutionary potential YouTube has to some extent reinforced the hegemony of dominant media forms. Professionally produced music videos have always been staple part of YouTube content. However, until recently these were usually user generated ‘bootleg’ editions sourced from domestic VHS cassette tapes. Today most major record labels have their own YouTube ‘channels’ streaming digitally re-mastered versions of classic clips alongside their latest releases. Exemplary of this trend is EMI America, which has made 459 videos available to Internet users by artists as diverse as Billy Idol, The Verve, The Specials, Megadeth, Tina Turner and John Lennon. Although it has to be said that very often those videos that secure the greatest number of views are not necessarily the authorised versions. For example, an unofficial version of the video for Blondie's Heart of Glass (1979) ripped from DVD and broadcast on the channel ‘susieretrofuture’ has been watched by three and half million viewers, while the official release on EMI America has been viewed by only three and a half thousand. Nevertheless, it is testimony to YouTube's influence on the market that record companies have opened their vaults for free public consumption. As its sale to Google in 2006 confirmed, YouTube is now the mainstream of music television: transforming the conventions of music video and determining new patterns of consumption.

Denis Thibaud's video for Rock This Party is an important video therefore because it has a foot in both camps: the mainstream and more specialised knowledge. On the one hand the video is professionally produced on a substantial budget: its glossy look is designed for heavy rotation on MTV and other digital channels. On the other hand, it draws heavily upon the kind of cultural archive available on YouTube. Like AllUC, Dailymotion and other websites dominated by user-generated content, the range of footage available on YouTube has made audiences for popular music video more sophisticated than ever before. It is this sophistication that the video for Rock This Party draws upon in the construction of meaning. Understanding of the text is contingent upon access to a raft of knowledge about popular music history: knowledge that will enable mastery in the code to decipher the meaning of the video. That said, as Thibaud's creation implies, audience pleasure with the music video is as much about the generic recognition of audience mimicry as it is about close deconstruction. Before we begin deconstructing the video for Bob Sinclar's Rock This Party, however, it is perhaps worth pausing to reflect upon the biography of its creator and the institutional context of the records release.

Institutions

Bob Sinclar has produced music in a variety of guises since the mid 1990s including The Mighty Bop and Africanism. This more plural sense of identity reflects the reconstructed sensibility of dance music culture in general: the infinite versions of the text that exist in endless remixes, re-workings and samples. This duality is prevalent in the release for Rock This Party. In addition to the explicit sample of C+C's Everybody Dance, the song is credited also to Sinclar's co-producer Cutee B and vocalists Dollarman, Big Ali and Makedah. However by using 15 year old Canadian actor David Beaudoin in the video as the front piece for this contingent alliance Thibaud's film imposes a recognisable brand identity that unifies the track with Sinclar's preceding releases. Beaudoin starred in the videos for both Love Generation (2005) and World Hold On (2006) and the success of repeating this strategy for Rock This Party is evidenced by the songs chart success across all territories. In the UK the track reached number 3 in October 2006 while in Europe it made the top ten in Belgium, The Czeck Republic, Holland, Finland, France, Latvia, Romania and Switzerland. In America the song also made it to number one on the US Dance Chart. While it would be easy to see the international success of Rock This Party as a reflection of the globalised nature of record production, the business infrastructure underpinning Sinclar is more modest than his achievements would suggest.

Like many recording artists today Sinclar is more self-sufficient that his forbears. In part this is reflects the lower cost of music technology. However, it also reflects instability in a music industry focused on short-term profit margins. For Sinclair the key strategy for success is to own his own record label: Yellow Productions, an outfit that has gone on to remix and produce for artists as diverse as Madonna, Moby and Lionel Ritchie. While such high profile collaborations are usually licensed back to the record label of artist in question, Yellow Productions own releases are typically confined to 12-inch singles for club use. As a consequence, for his own releases, the secret of Sinclair's success has been to license records to bigger labels in other territories. For example, in the UK Yellow Productions have an exclusive deal with Defected Records who release and promote all Sinclar's material. Likewise, in the US, Sinclair is licensed to Tommy Boy Records: a label that has its origins in the New York disco scene of the late 70s.

This level of specialisation in the career of Bob Sinclar reflects wider moves within the industry towards niche marketing and the targeting of defined communities of consumers: an effect of what Chris Anderson talks about in the The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006). In short the combined marketing and distribution possibilities of created by the Internet and other digital technologies have opened up possibilities for the profitability of fringe creative industries. That Bob Sinclar's career is a tribute to the reconstructed economic landscape of the Twenty First Century is entirely befitting. Just as the proliferation of the Internet has disrupted traditional economic models so too has the technology underpinning dance music challenged received ideas about authenticity and authorship in popular music. It is appropriate then that Thibaud takes this tension between the real and the simulated as his subject matter for Rock This Party. To understand this more fully, however, we perhaps need to focus on the representation of performance in the music video as a whole.

Representations

From a theoretical standpoint the popular music video has long been considered the ultimate example of the post-modern text. Music video is a depthless world in which musicians lip synch in simulated depictions of musical performance or act out the fragmented narrative elements eluded to in the lyrics. Rock This Party reinforces this idea in the fluid representation of Beaudoin's identity, as he ‘becomes’ different stars at specific points in the music. For example, in the songs opening riff we see him playing air guitar in the guise of Kurt Cobain, followed by Angus Young from AC/DC. As the beat shifts into a harder R+B style, he then transforms into Justin Timberlake before becoming Bob Marley as the record then takes on a more reggae/calypso feel. This pattern continues throughout the video whereby sonic conventions are indexed to very specific visual codes. In particular the guitar riff is accompanied by depictions of rock performers (Red Hot Chilli Peppers, The Beatles, AC/DC), while the softer more melodic parts are juxtaposed invocations of more traditional R+B/disco performances (Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever etc). It is interesting to note, however, that while Beaudoin is given license to transgress temporal and racial boundaries, there is no footage of him performing as female. This rejoinder to the dominant structure of the cultural hegemony is reinforced also by the choice of location: an affluent suburb of Montreal. And, indeed, part of the pleasure for the audience is perhaps lifestyle aspiration. This is connoted, for example, in the way that the camerawork lingers to focus on details of the house: its capacious garaging, ornate portico and imposing threshold. In this sense the celebration of the incidental material backdrop echoes the visual style of television drama: the largesse of shows like The O.C or Beverley Hills 90210. Of course the subtle codes of avarice are routinely worked into the visual presentation of Hip-Hop and R+B: the celebration of materialism or ‘bling’ that accompanies videos for artists like Jay Z and 50 Cent. And indeed an element in the construction of Rock This Party is of course the rap by Dollarman and Big Ali. However, the significance of the Rock This Party lies beyond the representation of sex, race and social class and is in the representation of pop music video history itself. To understand this, however, it is perhaps necessary to understand a little more about the broader contours of popular music video.

While some music videos affect a genuine representation of musical performance, this veneer of authenticity conceals the constructed and artificial nature of the representation. Musicianship is often central to this: the presence of guitar, bass and drums serving as motifs for a recordings musical providence. Videos in the rock idiom are particularly prone to rehearse such hackneyed depictions: mean and moody men wielding guitars and lead singers who prostrate themselves heroically at the challenge of getting to the end of the first chorus. The charm of Rock This Party, however, is it that it does none of this. Working within the dance genre the promo for the track is not pre-occupied with fabricating the circumstances of the records production: if it was then the record would focus on the studio exploits of the French DJ and not the fantatastical suburban world of 15 year old David Beaudoin. That is not to say, however, that videos for dance records do not have clichés of their own: the scantily clad, blonde babe is as much a feature of promos for artists like Eric Pridz and Uniting Nations as it is Aerosmith or Guns ‘n’ Roses. However, with records composed entirely of samples there is less pre-occupation with the signification of musical authenticity. For example, videos for early house music records by artists like S-Express and Black Box tended to favour more abstract depictions of club culture in keeping with social activities associated with the music: choreographed dance routines and bright lighting. Rock This Party, however, is groundbreaking because it dares to take the genre out of this ghetto. In one sense this reflects the notion that Bob Sinclar is very much a ‘second-generation’ pioneer of electronic dance music: his place at the top table is secure alongside other producer-DJ acts like Fat Boy Slim, Moby or Chemical Brothers. However, it is also a product of sample based dance music's place in pop music history. Twenty years on from the digital revolution of the Eighties, the history of popular music that Sinclar recuperates is very much its own; Rock This Party is of course based heavily on C+C Music Factories Gonna Make You Sweat (1990), a record itself constructed entirely from samples. The old adage that ‘pop will eat itself‘ is no longer true: it already has. And this sentiment is explored in Thibaud's audaciously parodic video clip.

Forms and Conventions

While Denis Thibaud's production for Rock This Party is a significant music video for the way in which it positions the audience and the complex representations of cultural history, the piece is actually fairly conventional in terms of its technical construction. Indeed, in the opening medium long shot of teenagers arriving at the detached suburban house, the naturalistic mise en scene resembles domestic environs of television drama rather than pop music video. This was deliberate on the part of Thibaud who purposefully wanted to borrow the opening to Paul Brickman's film Risky Business (1983) starring Tom Cruise:

He is alone in his house because his parent are on holiday so he is so happy to be alone he starts to dance in underwear in the living room
Thibaud 2008

This mimetic quality is central to the forms and conventions of the clip, which derive directly from the history of pop music video. As Thibaud states: “David had a personal dance instructor to learn all the different dances and how to play each artist. He saw a lot of video to see all the different artists” (Ibid). For an artists like Sinclar this is extremely significant: in the same way that his record is composed of samples so too is Thibaud's video made of fragments of other videos. In this sense Beaudoin's performance is not generic pastiche but instead it is a studied parody, carefully appropriating the conventions of specific videos and specific performances. This is evidenced by the meticulous attention to detail in the clothing codes deployed throughout the piece. As Thibaud states “I worked a lot with the stylist to find exactly the same style and outfit for each character” (Ibid). For Thibaud it would seem that the visual culture of popular music encodes some very specific strategies for listening.

The shift from Tom Cruise to Kurt Cobain in the opening sequence of the video is connoted by a number of key shifts. At first Beaudoin appears in a bleach blond wig and striped long sleeve t-shirt, which heralds a series of jump cuts in which the same location is drenched in the bright lighting that characterised Samuel Bayer's original video for Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit (1991). In keeping with this, Beaudoin's accomplices, two teenage girls, are reconfigured as the cheerleaders from 1991 promo. This sequence is then integrated into the next set piece via a point of view shot from the perspective of one of the cheerleaders as she opens the door to a bedroom. The camera moves through the door to reveal Beaudoin clad in schoolboy attire upon the bed clutching an electric guitar. The medium long shot cuts back and forth in time with music to a series of medium close ups of Beaudoin. Once again the female pair perform the role of audience members while the bed serves as a make-shift stage for Beaudoin's burlesque depiction of AC/DC's Angus Young. The camera then turns at a right angle to reveal the bi-folding doors of a capacious wardrobe; this then parts to reveal a second chamber in which Beaudoin is attired in the garb of Eminem: a white over-sized track-suit, baseball hat and white trainers. The ensemble is accessorised by jewellery including a medallion emblazoned with Bob Sinclar's name. Once again this is a very specific homage.

Fifteen seconds after the shift from AC/DC to Eminem the doors open and close to reveal a medium long shot of Beaudoin and his companies performing as Bob Marley and the Wailers: the wardrobe configured this time not as a studio space but as a portal to another place and time. The footage is not shot in the Caribbean, however, but on location in the house in Montreal: the invocation of Jamaica is contingent upon the palms tress, Beaudoin's Rastafarian hat and dreadlocks. It is interesting to note that only in this section do the female actors take on the role of female musicians: harmonising in the background while Beaudoin is shot in a variety of mid-shots and close-ups grappling with his guitar.

At one minute thirty three the action shifts with a wipe right into the garage: the journey from the bedroom, which is upstairs, to the garage, which is on the ground floor, is connoted but the movement of the camera from a crane shot to a medium shot of a band ‘rehearsing’. Though this movement is accomplished in one take, a jump cut to a mid-shot of the guitarist interrupts the flow; this creates the impression that the camera enters the garage door twice: the disjointed camerawork purposefully reflecting the staccato structure of Sinclar's composition. In this sequence there is considerable camera movement as Thibaud strives to capture the visual style of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's work with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Once again the mode of reception is precisely indexed to the visual codes of the performance: as Sinclar's soundtrack returns to the musical riff, the teenagers performance is that of the archetypal rock band. Unlike both the AC/DC or Nirvana sequences, Thibaud's recreation of The Red Hot Chill Pepper's does not position the female actors as audience members but as musicians: though it is of course telling that they are male as opposed to female performers in this most masculine of genres. That said the codes and conventions of rock are not without their transgressive qualities: long hair, headscarves and the studded dog collar emerge as key visual motifs. It is, however, Beaudoin's appropriation of lead-singer Anthony Keidis's tattooed flesh with the words ‘Bob’ and ‘Sinclar’ emblazoned across his back that lends the piece its most recognisably iconic quality.

A wipe to left heralds the next scene at one minute fifty, which takes place on the drive outside the detached house. A change in camerawork is immediately evident as the lens resumes its steady focus, this time from a low angle, on the two female actors who now sport more conventional b-girl attire: short sleeve tops, tight pants and baseball caps. While the angle of the shots puts them in an elevated position, this is undercut by the synchronised performance of a menial task (washing the car). Their subordinate subject position is reinforced then by the appearance of Beaudoin in the driving seat of the large red convertible. In the next shot the virtual power connoted by the strong colour and largesse of the vehicle offsets the diminutive stature of Beaudoin emphasized by the high angle crane shot. More so than the corn-brades or the sunglasses, Thibaud's studied recreation of Sean Paul is suggested by the specific code of Beaudoin's body language as he bends down in front of the car and in the loose gesticulation of the arm. It is interesting to note that in his appropriation of the codes and conventions of a hip-hop star Thibaud's production is most explicit in its celebration of the material: the car, the house and indeed, the girls, are all configured as desirable consumer objects: ‘bling’ to which the audience is invited to aspire.

The shift to black and white at two minutes ten is less expected than previous wipes, in part because the scene prior lasts longer at approximately twenty seconds but also because it is not accompanied by a major shift in the musical soundtrack. Thibaud uses a black and white television as device linking the colour footage shot explicitly on location in Montreal with supposed archive footage of The Beatles, in which Beaudoin plays all four band members. There is it would seem no place for women in the depiction of rock's most sacred history. Instead the female actors are relegated to the role of audience members screaming hysterically over the musical soundtrack. This diegetic noise prepares the audience for the interruption in the next sequence of Beaudoin's depiction of Justin Timberlake. At two minutes thirty-four the ringing of a doorbell interrupts the soundtrack. As Beaudoin/Timberlake opens the door, an over the shoulder medium shot reveals the unexpected visitor to be none other than Bob Sinclar himself: the forty year old French DJ with long brown hair in the role of the angry neighbour asking Beaudoin to ‘shhh’. Thibaud intersperses this diegetic sound with ‘Timberlake's’ rap, which appears like a response to Sinclar's request. The repetition of this ‘shhhh’ is followed by a pause in the non-diegetic soundtrack and then momentary silence, as if to highlight the dramatic irony of the DJ's proceeding appeal: “Can you stop this [bleep]ing music please?”. On the beat, the music cuts back into the soundtrack as the door slams, hitting Sinclar on face and the video immediately jumps to the next scene.

After this interlude the structure of the song reaches its outro and the backing harmonies are repeated to which previously invocations of Bob Marley and The Beatles have been set. Once again this shift to a more melodic style is symbolised in the visual depiction of less contemporary artists: John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Michael Jackso's Thriller (1983). Neither Saturday Night Fever nor Thriller are of course music videos in the strictest sense having both been cinema releases originally. However, their presence here reflects their enduring influence upon popular music culture and provides a sense of crescendo to Thibaud's piece as a whole. As with the more contemporary allusions to Sean Paul and Eminem these references are encoded not only in the very specific clothing conventions but also in the choreographed dance routines depicted. In the final five seconds of the video the editing then carousels its way through a much faster sequence of clips from the preceding shorts: Tom Cruise, Kurt Cobain, AC/DC, Bob Marley, Eminem, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Sean Paul, The Beatles, Justin Timberlake, John Travolta and Michael Jackson. The final shot, however, is a clip of ‘Sean Paul’, not included in the previous sequence, sitting on top of the roof of the house. As the shot moves towards the sky, the audience is briefly reminded of the leafy suburban surrounding before the video fades to back.

Audiences

On a very simple level Denis Thibaud production for Rock This Party enacts the associated social experience of listening to popular music for the audience. The soundtrack is interrupted in the opening frames by birdsong and the diegetic sound of a stereo being switched on, matched beat perfect to the opening bars of the record. It is telling that the setting is both domestic and suburban: though Sinclar is a club DJ, Rock This Party is clearly targeted at a very mainstream audience. This conception of the target audience is reinforced by the choice of lead actor: 15-year-old David Beaudoin. However, his routine in Rock This Party has considerable appeal to audiences of all ages. According to Thibaud many of the artists Beaudoin as asked to perform were unknown to the Canadian teenager: “David, the young guy didn't know nothing about all the artists he had to play, even Michael Jackson!” (Ibid). That said, the video assumes a high level of cultural capital on the part of its audience: the ability to distinguish between the real and the simulated; between the performance of popular music history and that which is being parodied. Indeed part of the pleasure for the audience is the identification of specific artists, genres and performances to which the video pays homage. Though attention has been paid to the detail of each performance including costume, body language and lighting this is clearly not a pastiche. The audience is well aware that temporary abnormal mask the fifteen year old has borrowed is a carnivalesque subterfuge. Identification of these contingent ciphers of popular music history is very much dependent upon access to the archives of popular music video. In part this can be attributed to the proliferation of digital television channels since the late Nineties. Increasingly niche marketed, in the UK channels like Kerrang!TV Smash Hits!TV and QTV are multi-platform brand extensions of print based pop coverage aimed at defined communities of consumers cohered specific genres of popular music: alternative rock, teen pop, AOR etc. However, the omnibus quality of Rock This Party also draws heavily on audience knowledge acquired from the Internet. Thibaud's production appeals to a teenage audience that is not only more media literate than ever before but also one with a more sophisticated understanding of popular music history. In this sense Rock This Party could be said to reflect the sensibility of a generation at ease with the cultural legacy of its forebears. Rebellion does not take the form of outright rejection but rather irreverence in the way that cultural matter is habilitated into the contemporary landscape of popular music culture. The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, Bob Marley are not presented as historical figures but timeless icons: fixed signifiers for the way in which popular music might be understood; modes of audience reception which the simplest gesture of costume or body language can invoke.

Conclusion

In conclusion the factors determining the success Bob Sinclar's Rock This Party and Denis Thibaud's promotional video reflects shifts in the way in which popular music video is conceptualised in the contemporary music scene. While YouTube may have initially offered the potential to challenge the form of music video, in the proliferation of archive footage it has actually re-inscribed the normative conventions. In this respect its greatest legacy has been the access it has given contemporary audiences to popular music history. This increasing awareness of pop music past has coincided with increasing acceptance of the more routine use of sampling and digital technology, which disrupt traditional notions of authorship and authenticity. As a consequence sample based dance music is no longer a fringe activity but very much part of the musical mainstream. On the one hand, the way in which Thibaud's video for Rock This Party snatches excerpts from other music videos and genres imposes a clear narrative on the creative processes underpinning electronic dance music. On the other hand, it also serves as a potent symbol of the mainstream acceptance of sample based dance music as part of pop music history in general. That said the institutional structure underpinning the success of Sinclar is more fragmented than previous generations of hit makers. Major labels are no longer interested in the investing in the long-term careers of performers and so Sinclar is one of an increasing number of artists that have taken control of the means of production by working independently and the licensing the finished product to specialist labels. In Sinclar's case this duality is reflected in the different names under which he has worked and the collaborative nature of his releases. And in Thibaud's video this plural sense of identity is worked through in the parodic depiction of other stars and moments in pop music history. Above all, however, Thibaud's music video works because it bridges the gap between the sensitive minority listeners of the dance music community and the more indifferent majority viewers of MTV, VH1 and YouTube. The key to this is Beaudoin and this works in two ways. Firstly, Thibaud's uses the 15 year old to over-come both the relative anonymity of a sample-based recording and the more limited appeal of Sinclair's as subject matter. Secondly, Thibaud's presents Beaudoin as not just the front piece of the recording but also the ideal type consumer, thus implicating the audience in his private enactment of their mutual listening pleasure.