Childish Gambino, ‘This is America’


Down in one: the single-shot music video

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Childish Gambino, ‘This is America’
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On the appeal and the achievement of the one-shot music video

The dance-based single-camera-shot pop music video is a classic form. There’s something thrillingly real and live, yet bizarrely staged about them that creates a sense of ‘could-never-do-it’ awe or ‘have-a-go’ accessibility for the viewer, depending on the example.

What is it about the single-shot music video that is so enduringly appealing? A lot of it is down to the camera-led experience, which mimics our experience of watching live performance – and the excitement and intimacy that comes with it. We watch life in one single shot, and because these videos are filmed (or appear to be filmed) in one take we know they’re real, that they were live, that the whole choreography actually happened at least once like that – and we can feel in awe of the rehearsal required (and then maybe even rehearse the moves ourselves).

The 21st century has produced the best of this single-camera-meets-dance form. There’s a captivating adaptability to the form that means it keeps being re-invented while retaining its impact (and ‘shareability’). They’ve come a long way: the Spice Girls made their hotel party meander Wannabe in 1996 but the choreography is only worthy of the school playground, and thankfully most of us have moved on. (Some might say that it’s a good thing that pop-stars like Beyoncé now nick their moves from contemporary dance royalty like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.)

Played on repeat, recorded one time only. OK Go's Here It Goes Again

In 2005, American garage-rock geeks OK Go taught themselves an impressive if choreographically clunky routine on four treadmills for their video to ‘Here It Goes Again’, which became an internet hit. Its deliberately clumsy, kooky choreography speaks of the truth of the effort. The band combine walking, treadmill-waiting and jumping with cheesy classic slides; it’s not virtuosic movement but it’s captivating and impressive because it’s in unison. In the early days of social media, those watching can relate: these ‘dancers’ are dressed in preppy casualwear, performing with smug honest faces expressing of the concentration it truly requires. People made their own versions and tributes: OK Go made those who couldn’t dance dream up choreography.

Count the camera in the choreography… Feist’s ‘1234’

Released two years later, Feist’s ‘1234’ took the one-shot format to new levels, building both the scale of production and incorporating the camera as part of the choreography. The camera rises, spins, spirals, pans and zooms in unison and contrast to the large cast movements, playing an integral role in the images created and drawing the viewer in. There’s a joyous simplicity to the movement – big, expressive, party-like – and once again a sense that, with enough friends, you could do it yourself.

The staged equivalent of bedroom emoting: Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend’

Robyn’s ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ (2011) sees Robyn alone, singing and dancing for herself (with disco lights). Though she’s aware of the camera, there are moments that we feel like the camera, in contrast to earlier examples, is prying on her personal dance of cathartic expression. Robyn slips between choreography and what seems like personal down-time: we watch her psych herself up for the more difficult routines. An angry punch or head-in-hands expression both lead into and disrupt the less ‘natural’ movements; it feels like she is performing segments of routines that she’s learnt, but in the heat of the emotions she can’t get her limbs around the transitions. It’s the staged equivalent of bedroom/kitchen emoting: there’s something human about the OTT movements, sexiness for one’s self, and sadness. We’ve been there.

No hideaway from Kiesza’s ‘Hideaway’

There’s nothing ‘real’ about Kiesza’s synchronised sidewalk bop journey in ‘Hideaway’ (2014), but its stylish advancing grind is infectious and pulls the audience in as much as it pulls the passers-by into the choreography. The camera leads us on a journey, always slightly ahead of the protagonist, but this is light-hearted dance purely for those good old reasons, joy and flirting.

On top of the form: Childish Gambino’s complex, sophisticated ‘This is America’.

In May 2018, postmodern polymath Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) released the video for his single ‘This Is America’. Filmed in (what passes for) one take in a huge warehouse, it’s a scathing yet stylish commentary on the contemporary African-American experience in the USA, with Glover and a huge cast distinctively dancing through stereotypes and atrocities. As the best videos are released as ‘events’ now, it premiered on the American late-night variety show Saturday Night Live, rooting it firmly in the realm of satire, and immediately went viral, provoking a deluge of critical response.

The single camera experience gives a sense of closeness, narrative urgency and panning socio-historical survey. The camera wavers and leads, knowing more of what’s coming than Mr Gambino and the audience, swinging between staged scenes in the warehouse. Choreographer Sherrie Silver has concocted a relentless contemporary fusion of African popular dances including Ghana’s Azonto and alkayida (noted for side to side moves), South Africa’s gwara gwara, and black America’s nae nae and shoot dances – and Silver will happily teach you on Youtube to dance them all and recreate the video. It’s a remarkable ethnographic study made both addictively enthralling and satirical; a sprawling combination of choreographic cultural references performed with such flair that it deliberately attempts to distract us from the horror the surrounds it, a political comment on the structural racism that that permeates American society while at the same time both celebrating and appropriating black cultures.

‘This is America’ is the most sophisticated of the dance-based single-camera-shot videos, narratively, cinematically and choreographically, representing a peak for the form. There are more examples than this article’s sample, for sure, and there’ll be more. It’s a simple, effective technique that makes a video hugely watchable, draws attention to the dance, and warrants re-watching. However, as the choreography gets better and the situations more complex, it does unfortunately make it harder and harder to copy in the bedroom. 

Theme: Dance+
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