God bless the booty video trend. Like any overwhelmed observer of popular music, I've had my moments of doubt about an aesthetic that more and more resembles those high-end porn videos for people who don't actually like porn. Those are the ones where the producers spend a bunch of money on saxophone music and a RED camera to make sure you don't feel gross about jerking off. You're not fooling anyone with your fancy lighting setups and fast-fashion knockoff wardrobe choices, guys. Still, there's a reason the booty genre has endured decades of music industry turmoil. The videos are great, and people love them. More vitally for our female music icons, it's a clear, surefire way to assert your relevance, no matter how old you are.
The clip for Jennifer Lopez's "Booty" remix that came out last week is yet another entry in the competition for filthiest music video of 2014. It excises the over-the-top, comical gyrations, garish set design, and knowing sense of humor of Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda" video and replaces that with a rapid-fire succession of butts doing things most butts can't do. Yes, it found a way to be even less subtle than "Anaconda."
Also, this is the first time I've considered Jennifer Lopez sexy since 2005, which is no small feat when discussing the star of Monster-in-Law and The Wedding Planner. "Booty" has enough people talking (or not talking, depending how much they like the video's ample eroticism) that Lopez probably just punched her ticket off the music industry senior tour. The ass-centric, porny spank video is now the go-to career move for legacy pop stars like J-Lo who want an instant hot relevancy injection.
I know I'm basically being manipulated by these videos—duped into believing I'm seeing something edgy solely for the purposes of getting me to care about the song that's tangentially related to the sex. In this case, the ruse worked, since if I had just heard the song on its own, I probably would tweet something snarky and forget about it forever (or at least until I'm doing commentary on the "Where Are They Now" segment of I Love the 2010s on VH1 Classic). The track that inspired the video is pretty unremarkable, modern pop music, but after years of dodgy film performances and captaining the flaming Hindenberg known as American Idol, it's more than a bit shocking to see J-Lo having oil poured all over her ass for my enjoyment. "Booty" director Hype Williams has been trading in titillation since before I could drive a car, but sexuality in videos has evolved greatly since Williams' heyday.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the sexual performance in music videos happened mostly in the rear (pun intended, obviously. I'm a pro, guys). Anonymous background dancers would grind and shake for the appreciation of both the stars of the video (usually male) and the audience simultaneously. One of Hype Williams' most well-known videos is Jay Z's "Big Pimpin," a clip that—along with Paul Hunter's video for Notorious B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize"—defines the classic "rich black men on a boat" genre. In that video, Jay and UGK are surrounded by hot women in an exotic location. The ladies dance for our amusement while the guys pop bottles, smoke phallic cigars, and throw money around. This is the template for any great hip-hop video, but has fallen out of favor in a climate where labels don't let you blow $200,000 on what is essentially a super entertaining commercial anymore. Today's videos lean on superhuman sexuality because they can't afford to toss $100 bills off the side of a yacht, send a film crew to Trinidad, and blow up Lamborghinis anymore.
When female hip-hop and R&B artists made videos in the last two decades, the focus of the sexuality was often wildly different from their male counterparts. Another Paul Hunter video from that era, Mariah Carey's "Honey," features Mariah stripping down to a bathing suit, getting very wet from a dip in the ocean, and fronting a tame, almost corny dance routine inside yet another yacht. Her backup dancers are dressed like sailors, because they're on a boat. What else would they be dressed as? Cossacks? Chinese railroad workers? Power Rangers? Hunter was also the guy who put Missy Elliot inside a garbage bag for the video for "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)." What we have now is Nicki, J-Lo, Iggy, and others filling that traditional backup dancer role of shaking their ass, but with no guys around to smoke cigars.
The booty video genre is kind of a victory for the backup dancers of the world, in that their abilities and unique talents are an important part of making a pop star successful. These videos aren't just a vehicle to promote a song. They're also their own form of performance spectacle. I'm not sure this is even possible, but if one were to be able to remove the sensuality from "Booty," the viewer could still marvel at Lopez's immaculate fitness level. She is flexible in a way that a 45-year-old should not be. Beyond the obvious sexuality factor, the booty video' allows the pop star to reassert vitality, to triumphantly declare, "I am not old!"
What we are looking at in "Booty" is a marvel of human ingenuity, and a symbol of what we can do with the human form if all we make it do is drink sparkling water, eat rice cakes, exercise, and judge talent shows. J-Lo's trainer should be eligible for some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award at the next VMAs, or at the very least, a gift certificate for Bath and Body Works. Just a little something to say thank you. We now know that Jennifer Lopez is in better shape than the whole world, which has become the number one prerequisite for musical success if you are a woman. Good luck living up to that standard, gals.
Of course, it shouldn't have to be that way. It just is. If you are a female singer past the age of 40, the market is constantly trying to turn you into metaphorical glue and repurpose you for a humiliating reality show about your precipitous decline in fortune instead of continuing to let you, you know, make music. Mariah Carey's last music video—a far cry from the glory days of "Honey"—came and went, and was notable for us never seeing a single clear shot of her body. She sits down backwards in a chair like a "cool" substitute teacher or covers herself with her arms for most of the video. Whether we like it or not, that's abdicating the throne in a pop climate where Miley Cyrus simulates fellatio as her opener. Mariah Carey is only a year younger than Jennifer Lopez (44 rather than 45), but didn't even come close to declaring her power the way J-Lo did.
For fun, I googled "Ashanti," a singer who blew up around the same time as J-Lo, but is 12 years younger than her. The first news article that came up was a piece on BuzzFeed called "Why You Should Still Care About Ashanti." In it, the author details Ashanti's early success, departure from Irv Gotti's Murder Inc. record label, her relationship with Nelly, and her comeback album, Braveheart. From the quotes and photos, Ashanti seems creatively fulfilled and healthy. Braveheart only sold 28,000 copies in its first week of release, barely squeaking into the top ten on the Billboard charts.
In February of this year, a video for a track from Braveheart called "I Got It" was released. It's a garish throwback with random shots of hot sports cars, a tough guy rapper looking tough (substitute Ja Rule with Rick Ross), and Ashanti alternating between sexy and intransigent poses. It's full of signifiers of wealth that are almost quaint—champagne, lapdances, fur coats, and gold chains—when compared to whatever wearable future tech I'm supposed to buy this Christmas. It's basically an HD version of a Blackstreet video up to around the 2:30 mark, when we see a man who may or may not be a Ja Rule impersonator tied to a chair. Ashanti pours a bottle of expensive liquor on his head, then grinds up on him for no reason.
I'm sure she expended a lot of energy on this video, but the last thing I thought was, "Wow, Ashanti looks really hot." I mean, she's in great shape and looks amazing, but it feels like so much posturing. I can't even properly articulate why I didn't care. I just didn't. I do know that Ashanti was never "sexy" to begin with. Her appeal came from being a sweet girl in the midst of a courtship with a guy from the "wrong side of the tracks," which was a posture Jennifer Lopez was more than happy to assume back in 2001. Despite coming out six months before the "Anaconda" video, I don't think anyone is calling the "I Got It" video a feminist statement. It didn't even make a dent on the culture. Despite her best efforts to embrace the new sexuality, Ashanti got old.
Before she released "Booty," Jennifer Lopez was in real danger of going the Ashanti/Mariah Carey route. Of her peer group, she's the one who seemingly got left behind in the nursing home from Cocoon. Beyoncé is the powerful, vital media mogul. Justin Timberlake got the respectable acting career. Britney Spears is the living, breathing waxwork figure raking in millions of dollars a year doing Vegas pantomime. Christina Aguilera was on a talent show people still care about.
As a film star, J-Lo never quite lived up to the promise of Selena and Out of Sight, nor did she go full-time as a pop star, so a new project from her is often met with the sort of muted interest more often associated with a new NCIS spinoff or State of the Union address. We know what we're going to get, it's not going to be that great, but we pay attention because. Her latest album, A.K.A., sold a modest 33,000 copies in its first week of release. American Idol somehow gets duller with every passing season. With relevance slowly slipping through her fingers, Jennifer Lopez did the one thing any female pop star in need of a popularity resurgence can do: She made a booty video. A really porny booty video with Iggy Azalea and implied sapphic bliss.
These videos, when done well, serve a purpose in the pop universe. I am not ashamed to say I can be marketed to with sex, which is why I love the transparent appeal of the booty video. Before, I wasn't interested in anything J-Lo did, and now… well I'm only slightly embarrassed to say I'll pay attention to everything she does. Maybe a bit too much. The travesty known as "The Fappening" revealed that actresses, pop stars, and models have been so sexualized by the inescapable nature of their professions (and the accompanying need to stay young) that our prurient interest in their bodies has destroyed any remnant of privacy they had left. The audience can say, "sorry, not hot enough" to Ashanti or Mariah Carey through their apathy, but if Jennifer Lopez gets an Astroglide shower, she gets to be important again.
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