Digital Witness is a series that examines the imagery and themes in an artist’s music videos.
Like his demo CD-R, which Animal Collective famously rescued from their tour van floor and released as The Doldrums, Ariel Pink‘s videos feel like discarded objects. Their ideal delivery system is not YouTube, but an unlabeled box of VHS tapes in the back of a Goodwill. Like Harmony Korine, his fellow child of the 1970s, Pink relentlessly fetishizes the technologies of his youth, both the rosy, saturated glow of 8mm home movies and the smeared look of early camcorders: Imagine Korine’s Spring Breakers filmed in the style of his faux-found Trash Humpers. (Pink also shares with Korine a penchant for shooting his mouth off in interviews, blurring the line between idiot savant and just plain idiot.)
The Loser Pop Star
Almost from the beginning, Pink was mythologizing himself as an undiscovered pop star. In the video for the second half of “Foilly Foibles/Gold,” he’s idly jamming with friends in a basement while eager hangers-on thrust their hands through the window bars like fan-club zombies:
But that’s coupled with a persistent habit of presenting himself as a loser, albeit one with a strange (even inexplicable) appeal to The Ladies. “Only in My Dreams,” which was inspired by the end of his seven-year relationship with Geneva Jacuzzi, finds him constructing a series of pick-up-artist fantasies — the “dreams” of the title — but ends with Daniels, playing herself, ranting at the camera, right after Pink hopefully sings the words, “And we’ll have so much fun.”
Jacuzzi, by the way, makes several more appearances in the video: As the reckless driver of a car from which Pink rescues a damsel in distress; as a guitarist in his band; and as this unwanted intruder on a beach date:
Home movies, those inherently nostalgic constructions of the past, are one of Pink’s go-to favorites:
And given his long association with Southern California, it’s no surprise many of them involve the beach.
“Mistaken Wedding” plays like a standard-issue document of a Jewish marriage ceremony, complete with Pink as one of the yarmulked guests.
But later on, the video turns into a different kind of home movie altogether, and you can practically see the bride lunging for the remote as she blurts, “Oh God, I didn’t realize this was on here, too.”
Often, the cheesy video-toaster look of public access TV and basic-cable commercials is played simply for kitsch, aimed mostly at an audience too young to remember when such techniques were state of the art:
Dumpster-Diving Through History
But in “Witchhunt Suite for WWIII,” which Pink began in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, sold as a homemade CD in 2007, and finally released as a digital single, with accompanying video in 2011, that cozy backwards-looking certainty gives way to something more troubling:
Over the course of the song’s 16 minutes, Pink backtracks through history, juxtaposing images from jihadist training camps and TV cop-show footage with reductive abandon. Eventually, his travels take him back to the Reagan ’80s, with images of such forgotten former U.S. allies-then-enemies as Manuel Noriega and Muammar Gadaffi subbing in for Osama bin Laden, who appears in the song’s lyrics (rhymed with “Sodom”) but not the video’s imagistic collage.
“Witchhunt’s” most provocative juxtaposition comes when Pink, with an assist from his lo-fi mentor R. Stevie Moore, appears in a bulky vintage sweater and Walkman headphones, dancing in front of footage of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion.
On the one hand, it’s a grotesque act, turning a national tragedy (albeit one far smaller in scope than 9/11 itself) into the backdrop for a cheesy karaoke video. But it’s also of a piece with Pink’s cut-and-paste aesthetic, which turns apparently random confluences of sound (and image) into opportunities for transformative and disturbing pop.
With the first two videos for pom pom, Pink has made a surprising break with his past aesthetics that that suggests a kind of grudging consent to so-called professionalism. The provocation is there, provided in “Put Your Number in My Phone” by the sight of Pink pushing a gas mask-wearing man in a wheelchair around a mall while both of them hit on plainly uninterested women, and in “Picture Me Gone” by a scantily clad woman in a featureless face mask making sexual advances towards a small dog. (As with “Only in My Dreams,” Pink seems compelled to pair a romantic pop song with images that are anything but.) The relatively lenient pace of their editing and the calm composition of shots like this one don’t match up with anything he or his directors have done before:
Where he’s often been the center of attention, Pink is here a largely passive participant or a distant observer, as if the songs are worlds he created but does not fully inhabit. Is this a bold new direction, or has Pink merely forsaken his VHS collection for a Netflix queue full of Kubrick movies? Stay tuned.