A machine can encourage new patterns of behaviour, building different postures and muscle groups. Historically this has been most clearly understood in relation to factory labour; the industrial revolution transformed people’s lives; public health was devastated by pollution, long working hours, and cramped living conditions. At around the same time, the bourgeoisie was deliberately using machines to change their bodies through the development of exercise machines: technology used for leisure often stands as a direct, although perverted, reflection of technology used for work.
The dot com boom of the late 1990s had lasting effects on culture. Even after the financial bubble burst, the growing role of network-connected computers in both working life and leisure was undeniable. Meanwhile, bodies were themselves becoming more malleable and adaptable, through a rapid rise in the uptake of plastic surgery and other cosmetic procedures; 1999 saw a 66% increase on the previous year, according to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. In technologically-advanced, capitalist countries, the body was changing in relevance, with a decline of manufacturing and an expansion of the service industries. Increasingly, the human body was a display object meant to do emotional work.
Have you ever watched the video for Linkin Park’s “In The End” and thought that it looked a bit like a post-Playstation Final Fantasy game? Weirdly, “Holler” by the Spice Girls seemed to be set in the same game. The urban fantasy computer-generated city in Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” also seems to be replicated in a Spice Girls video. Whatever this may tell us about the Spice Girls aside, this suggests that the image of the digital playground transcended genres.
A game world is a liminal space: a world of leisure and symbolism separate to daily life. The prevailing design ethos at the time was that gameworlds, by necessity, must feature conflict, or danger, or just an endless supply of disorder that the player can busy themself trying to resolve. When music videos looked videogamey, they looked current, but they also looked beset by some problem or another.
We can look to turn-of-the-millennium music videos’ use of conspicuous computer graphics to understand some of the worries that people had about the effects of new technologies on the body. Music videos’ use of computer graphics to depict bodies often seemed to describe contemporary problems with the changing media landscape — in some of the most interesting music videos from this time, bodies are being digitally altered in videogamey computer-generated worlds.
TLC’s “Unpretty” shows a woman being pressured by a man (maybe her boyfriend) to have plastic surgery: their discussion about the ideal body is shown visually through a wireframe model being transformed with breasts shifting in size. Computer-generated objects inserted into the space around her suggest that the pressure doesn’t just come from the men in her life, or from the mere fact that the technology to change her body exists, but from an ever-present critical gaze, represented by a flying camera drone that follows her everywhere. The same drone is shown in the scenes featuring the band members themselves, who sit in lotus posture in what looks like a computer-generated ashram: here the machine’s shell is closed around the camera, as if in this peaceful state there is an end to the self-conscious vigilance whereby one imagines how one is seen by others.
In the 1960s, anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that the body has special symbolic significance in helping us to understand a society as a whole, that we should “see in the body a symbol of society, and to see the powers and dangers credited to social structure reproduced in small on the human body.”
“The body is a model which can stand for any bounded system. Its boundaries can represent any boundaries which are threatened or precarious. The body is a complex structure. The functions of its different parts and their relation afford a source of symbols for other complex structures.”
The media gaze wasn’t just an assault on the body personal, but on other social institutions too. A 2010 Adam Curtis mini-documentary drew a link between how the media spectacle came — particularly since the 1990s — to distort the public’s perception of their society, and how it distorted their perception of their own body: through hypervigilance, paranoia, and confusion. As journalism’s access to easy good vs. evil narratives collapsed after the end of the cold war, its reach and remit were expanded by 24-hour news and on-demand information over the internet. Under these conditions, everything became a target for scrutiny and a possible source of corruption, from the highest echelons of power to the unknown internal processes of the body itself.
The era of 24-hour news was also an era of 24-hour music. Teens in the 1990s listened to 4 times more music than teens in the 1970s. The availability of niche TV channels meant that for the first time, music videos could be played for hours on end. This era of pop was about availability not just to the ears, but to the eyes and minds of target demographic groups as part of a perpetually-moving marketing machine.
Robbie Williams, “Rock DJ”
Robbie Williams’s “Rock DJ” was released in 2000, an (admittedly terrible) track on an album called Sing When You’re Winning. The video used a combination of stage makeup and cutting-edge computer graphics to depict Williams taking off his clothing, skin and muscles in order to get a DJ’s attention. The story is partly couched in a heteronormative “boy tries to get the girl” narrative, but another valid reading is that the video is about the quest for fame. The body becomes the central playground in a game for attention. Williams is stood in the centre of a roller derby rink, with women zooming around him, moving too fast to pay much notice to what he is doing until he makes a spectacle of his own self-destruction — a spectacle gory enough to disrupt the flow of play, as they literally consume him.
“Robbie Williams, the deity of levity, is the combustible core of contemporary masculinity,” wrote Tara Brabazon in the International Journal of Culture Studies in 2002, in an article that establishes in clear terms that one of the things that made Williams interesting as a media personality was the way he played with image and pride.
“He has been prepared to not only age in public, but to discuss the crevices and cracks in the facade… surfing the simulacra, he is prepared to reveal paranoia, weakness, and confusion. He strips, smokes, plays football, wears interesting underwear and drinks too much.”
The level of gore in this video as the body is taken apart by a digital gaze is comparable to the way the body’s gruesome innards are made visible and public in Mortal Kombat. This use of the flesh made visible itself recalls Michel Foucault’s interpretation of public executions as the state making a spectacle of its control over bodies, as Amsel von Spreckelsen argued in a previous issue of Memory Insufficient:
“The body of the condemned is the site of justice and the justice takes the form of the state, or the individual whose power constitutes the state, taking ownership of that body and submitting it to their will. There is a side effect in that any torture or deprivation has a public element, a pageantry to it, that might discourage other potential criminals from their criminal acts, but the core of it is in the violent assertion of ownership. The public execution is not about showing to others what might happen to their bodies should they transgress, but about reiterating that the state has the right to do this to its subjects, as well as enacting and so giving a purpose to that right.”
The “Rock DJ” video worked in part because it came from an artist who had been famous since the age of 16, and had been in the tabloids a great deal, as the press made news stories out of his struggles with substance abuse and depression. And the computer-generated human sacrifice is also, as Brabazon points out, an exercise in the futility of trying to render the white male dominant body into an object of desire: there is nothing interesting about Williams’s striptease until the skin is stripped away and the performance of celebrity draws its first blood.
Kylie Minogue, “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” — a Kraftwerk-inspired video for a heavily Kraftwerk-influenced record — depicts an entourage of cyborg backing dancers who, while not themselves computer-generated, dance machine-like in a world that is established in computer-generated opening shots as being unreal and distant. “Even when the location is rendered abstract or uncertain, it is nevertheless always and unambiguously not a natural environment,” wrote Diane Railton and Paul Watson in their analysis of how this video frames Kylie Minogue’s sexuality as clean, controlled, and sterile.
Kylie speeds down a freeway in a sports car, heading deeper and deeper into a cold, grey, unreal city. Buildings pass by her, looking like low-polygon placeholders for where an actual city would be, the pace of their movement uneven as though some buildings were flickering in and out of existence.
An overwrought use of lens flare in this video suggests that you are watching Kylie through a camera. She goes through wardrobe changes, from red driving gloves to white ones, to a strange one-piece white garment that accentuates her dance moves while making her body look unnaturally long and stiff (“the fluidity of the dress merely confirms the flesh’s rigidity,” wrote Railton and Watson). Her final costume change introduces a dress that looks as though it is made of metal, suggesting that she has shifted from driving a machine to becoming machine-like herself. All the while, the throbbing beat of the song and its lyrics push the listener into a dispossessed, inhuman fixation on a product as Kylie sings “set me free!”
Media scholar Lee Barron, writing in 2008, explicitly interpreted Kylie’s work through Roger Caillois’s theories of play. He quotes Caillois, “all play presupposes the temporary acceptance, … of a closed … imaginary universe” — music videos are playful objects of make-believe, especially for an artist like Kylie Minogue who takes on different identities at different times, making everything seem like play and leaving nothing stable. For Barron, the “artifice and simulation” at work in her music videos from this era are strongly connected to notions of play and mimicry.
This play and mimicry, acted out in an imaginary universe made to look conspicuously unreal, spoke to problems that were then emerging in the physical, social world. The gaze of the media was ever harder to escape, like the floating drone camera in “Unpretty”. It was aggressive and demanding of its subjects, pulling them apart like the digital meat of Rock DJ. These videos exploited the uncanny valley to speak to how a technologically mediated gaze distorted its subjects and the world around them — all while fulfilling the commercial demand for pop music to provide a spectacle that looked exciting and new.
Zoya Street is today publishing a book with Silverstring media called Digital Bodies
. It is a collection of essays and articles that he has written over the past few years, covering themes such as digital craft and sexualised bodies. If you like this article, you might like the articles in that book.