Short anecdote: I read a quote on Pitchfork the other day from Jack White (of the White Stripes fame). He was defending his “sister”/bandmate/ex-wife Meg White against haters, saying:
“Her femininity and extreme minimalism are too much to take for some metal heads and reverse-contrarian hipsters. She can do what those with ‘technical prowess’ can’t. She inspires people to bash on pots and pans. For that, they repay her with gossip and judgment. In the end she’s laughing all the way to the Prada handbag store. She wins every time.”
As someone who has criticized Meg White’s ostensibly skill-less drumming in the past (I think Jack would have classified me as a reverse-contrarian hipster, for sure), I think Jack’s statement really illuminates what the musical palate of American music consumers has come to expect: bravado, decadence, gloss. We want to be impressed, and with expectations of extravagance we find it more difficult to appreciate the beauty of minimalism.
Any time I think of minimalism, I think of Ernest Hemingway. On the surface, the man’s prose is as dry as the heat in Arizona, which seems to turn people off; they think that if someone can’t write with the verbal flourishes of a William Faulkner or a Charles Dickens that the writer is lazy or not as gifted. But the thing with Hemingway is that his minimalism was intentional; he wanted to pare away the unnecessaries and present a narrative whose words weren’t wasted, but were deliberate. The tone of entire sentences could hinge on Hemingway’s use of pronouns, and once, when Hemingway was asked to write a story in six words, he wrote “For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” The reason Hemingway’s prose is so powerful is because it’s sparse and minimalistic and because it removes linguistic distractions.
Thinking about minimalism in terms of music videos, I immediately thought of Sinead O’Connor’s heartbreaking 80’s classic, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
In my mind, this video is visual Hemingway. Even by 80’s standards, this video is incredibly sparse. But it’s brilliant because it doesn’t rely on impressive production or special effects or sex appeal to make an impression. The only time that anything other than Sinead is on the screen is when she isn’t singing; but the close, tight shots of Sinead singing directly into the camera are riveting because there are no distractions from her face or the words coming out of her mouth. It’s like having an intimate conversation with her, and the minimalism of the video makes lines like “I can put my arm around every boy I see / But it will only remind me of you” that much more powerful, and real. Which I suspect was Sinead’s intent: to show heartbreak without embellishments, to show the rawness and reality of it, tears and defiance and pleading and all. This video not only gives me the chills every time I watch it, but it makes me cry too (you turn me into a blubbering weeping infant, Sinead!). And because of that, because of the emotional connection I feel when I watch this vid, it makes it more memorable than something with snazzy production value; because really, a music video is not meant to be about the video, but rather it’s meant to be about the song and serve as a vehicle to best express the heart of the song, and I think this video is a divine example of that.
To Jack White, Meg White, Hemingway, Sinead O’Connor and her single tear: I salute you, and respect and appreciate your minimalism.