What You See is What You Get
The post-postmodern approach to the visual representation of sound in
Michel Gondry‘s The Hardest Button to Button
In this essay, I want to analyze the music video for the White Stripes song "The Hardest Button to Button" directed by Michel Gondry and examine how sound is represented visually in this piece. This essay is essentially the written form of my presentation held on the 3rd of June 2014 in the context of the seminar "Sum Fistsful of Music: Videos You Gotta Analyze Before the Term Ends" conducted by Prof. Dr. Bernd Herzogenrath at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
After comparing three different sources of inspiration with their interpretation in the video, I will try to summarize Gondry‘s perspective by analyzing the adaptions constituted by him. Considering the music video as a whole, I will then interpret it as a metaphor for recording sound and explain how this theory ties in with my interpretations of the individual shots, mentioned earlier. Finally, I will try to put The Hardest Button to Button in context and determine, if it can be considered postmodern, and identify it as a piece transcending this movement, which could be considered post-postmodern. Concluding this Essay, I will summarize the analysis of the video and incorporate my own opinion.
Gondry incorporates different traditions of transcribing sound into visual information throughout the video. Technical strategies, representations in art, as well as musical theory are keys terms for understanding the different sources of inspiration mirrored in The Hardest Button to Button.
The first strategy of visualizing sound I would like to elaborate on, is one that mimics the style of the representation of sound in the technical field. Here, frequencies or other variables like volume are indicated by graphs, or simplified forms thereof. Depending on the data displayed, full columns depict high volume or frequencies, while empty columns constitute low volume or frequencies. This visualization functions as a sliding scale and allows to track information in relation to time passed, as the columns move in a steady rhythm, translating the data by lighting up for its viewer at random. Gondry here draws inspiration from the simpler type of representation, often found on boomboxes in the eighties and nineties, as opposed to the more complicated frequency spectrums more common in a professional context. The band members, Meg and Jack White, move back and forth, toward and away from the camera to the beat of the music, imitating the columns of a stereo. In a sense, the representation has come full circle. The band creates the music, which is represented by the columns on the playback device, which is mirrored by the band in the video. By having the band mirror the columns of a stereo, Gondry challenges the relationship of original and representation, and raises the question which occurrence is cause and which symptom.
The second form of visualization appearing in the video I want to discuss, is the expression of music through art. While there are many ways of interpreting sound as visual art, I want to focus on dance. Exhibiting similar properties as the music video, namely the aspect of movement, choreographed dance may be one of the oldest forms of transcribing sound into picture, often by accompanying one with the other. Busby Berkeley, a choreographer active in the Hollywood of the thirties, prevails as a genius of the trade and shall serve as an example of my point. Berkeley managed to conduct dancers in ways that made them not only accompany music, but provide visual content by creating hypnotic symmetrical shapes and movements. In these choreographies, the dancers‘ bodies are detached from their usual meaning and put into a completely different context, acting as identical beads in a human kaleidoscope. Gondry adapts this principle and breathes life into inanimate objects by making them dance. Instead of objectifying human bodies and demoting them into things, he elevates Meg White‘s drum kits to dancers, placing them in a choreography similar to Berkeley‘s. Where Berkeley uses the fluid movement of bodies to express sound, Gondry utilizes things, adapting this form of expression to a capitalist consumerist environment.
The third area of inspiration reflected in the music video is musical notation. Borrowing from tablature notation, Gondry transcribes this visual representation into a literal one. Where tablature notation marks a sound of a specific part of the drum kit with a symbol on a grid, The Hardest Button to Button features the actual drum heard playing in a representational pattern. Deconstructing "the drums" as a musical instrument, single components of the drum kit here function as a visual for the sound they make when they make it, as opposed to being part of a larger construct with the ability of creating a sound. Again, passive is realized as active in this music video and the origin of sound and representation are challenged. Tablature notation usually functions as an instruction manual to be followed. The drum kit in The Hardest Button to Button, however, does not seem to be supposed to serve as a notation, but rather as pictorial apparition of a noise. If the tablature imitates the drums and the drums in the video imitate the tablature, they ultimately serve as a representation of themselves, their single components functioning as symbols for their sound.
Furthermore, it could be argued that The Hardest Button to Button serves as a metaphor for the recording of sound. In the video, the musical instruments appear one by one in a line, while the musicians move forward with each appearing instrument. In this example, there are many drum sets visible, whereas there is only a single Meg White. Once they have appeared, the drum kits stay fixed in their spot, only White is allowed to move. Similar to how when recording music, the cause of the sound, the artist, is ephemeral and must move on with the passing time, it is the sounds captured, conserved on a record that are timeless and can be replayed on demand. The way that instrument and artist are portrayed in The Hardest Button to Button therefore suggests that the music video is a visual for the recorded title of the album, as opposed to the song as an unbound concept. By reducing the White Stripes to symbols expressing the sound of their recording, Gondry blurs the line between subject and object, forcing the viewer to wonder who is imitating what.
At first glance, it seems to be the artist who is moving freely, rendering the instrument a passive entity which appears at his will. In an interview, Gondry reveals the technicalities of filming the video. Naturally the drum sets were not emerging out of thin air according to Meg White‘s will, but rather White following the previously set up instruments. Without this background information, the music video can be seen from two perspectives. Either the viewer believes it is the musician who makes the instruments appear, of the other way around. Considering the process of creating the visual effect for the video however, seems to allows only one interpretation. Again, Gondry has the musicians follow the apparition of their music and allows passive objects to gain agency, thereby challenging the audience to question cause and effect.
Clearly, representation is a major topic of this video, but can this piece be considered postmodern? Simulation, the postmodern term for representation as it were, is described by Jean Baudrillard as substitution of signs of the real, for the real (Baudrillard 11). According to this, The Hardest Button to Button features several instances of simulations of simulations. The White Stripes are representing the columns of a frequency spectrum, which itself is a representation of sound, the dancing drum kits are representations of dancing women, who in turn are representing the music they are dancing to, the tablature notations, which is a representation of noise, are represented by the actual drum that would make that noise and the entire video seems to be a representation of the recording of the song, which itself is a representation of the actual performance, which is a representation of the song as an abstract concept. Additionally, the sheer mass of products appearing in The Hardest Button to Button attest to a consumerist perspective. However, while Gondry does discuss terms associated with the postmodern, his work does not qualify as a classic piece of the movement. James MacDowell has suggested that Gondry‘s work is not to be classified as postmodern, but rather post-postmodern (MacDowell 15). The quirky quality of the video, which manifests itself for instance by the animate life of objects, points toward a less cynical take on postmodernism (Mac Dowell 14), making it something beyond.
In my opinion, Gondry accomplishes two different things in The Hardest Button to Button. Firstly, he combines different forms of the visual representation of sound, utilizing diverse subjects and transforms them into depictions that are of equal value to one another. Instead of dancing lights on a boombox, the band members of the White Stripes are dancing to and fro. In place of dancers who express music with their bodies, it is dancing music instruments that charm the viewer‘s eye. Dead place holders on a piece of paper turn into living symbols, appearing as a live representations of the sound they make. Merging these different influences, Gondry demonstrates that he values technology, art and musical theory equally, eliminating a differentiation of high and low brow culture.
Secondly, Gondry transforms the different depictions of noise into versions that include his perspective, making them a post-postmodern take on the visual representation of music. Throughout the video, Gondry challenges the viewers concept of reality and representation, cause and symptom, original and imitation. In The Hardest Button to Button each of these conceptual dualities is purposefully portrayed as affecting each other in a dialogue. Breaking with the perception of these terms as dualisms, Gondry enables his audience to perceive them as fluid concepts. Furthermore, there are many instances of inanimate objects gaining an active role, and humans functioning as simulations which occur in the video. This phenomenon can be linked to Gondry‘s affinity for handmade filmmaking and stop-motion animation. However, just as his playful notion of simulation mentioned above, this quirky perspective on consumerism is also evidence for a post-postmodern attitude.
I personally feel that not only is The Hardest Button to Button an exemplary piece of Gondry‘s work, but a paradigm of post-postmodern thinking. Pieces like this video institute a discussion often thought as concluded. Simultaneously representing music visually in an esthetic manner and integrating coherent messages to be interpreted, this piece successfully operates as music video and cultural theory. In The Hardest Button to Button Gondry has transcended the cynical approach to postmodernism and proven that a music video can work as both entertainment and art.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.
Busby Berkeley - Dance Until The Dawn. Youtube. AnnaMayWongSociety, 15 June 2008. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
Digital image. May Studio Music Lessons. Lynne May, 17 May 2008. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.
MacDowell, James. "Wes Anderson, Tone and the Quirky Sensibility." New Review of Film and Television Studies 10.1 (2012): 6-27. Print.
The Hardest Button to Button. Dir. Michel Gondry. Perf. The White Stripes. 2003. Musicvideo.
The White Stripes. "The Hardest Button to Button." Elephant. XL, 2003. CD.
White Stripes - Hardest Button to Button (making). Youtube. Egyptiansushi, 12 Nov. 2006. Web. 23 Aug. 2014
Woodchipper Massacre (1988). Digital image. Tumbler.com. Gifsploitation, Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Aug. 2014.