When Your Music Video Is Not-So-Secretly an Advertisement

Icona Pop's "All Night" nobly portrays New York's ball culture, but it's one of a handful of recent musical projects whose commercial ties overshadow their creative ambitions.
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Icona Pop’s glittery, Paris Is Burning-inspired music video for “All Night” has gotten a lot of praise since it premiered last week. A follow-up to their inescapable “I Love It,” the clip finds the electropop duo providing the soundtrack to a dance-off between two houses of New York City’s drag ball scene. Stereogum said the video takes “the song’s kineticism and really does something with it.” Queerty called it a “a brilliant homage” to ballroom culture. The video’s top YouTube comment reads, “This is how you respectfully appreciate a culture that you're not a part of. Miley Cyrus better take notes.”

It’s easy to see why fans are calling “All Night” an antidote to Cyrus’s controversial “We Can’t Stop” clip. There, Cyrus adopted twerking and aspects of ratchet culture while relegating the black women in her video to roles as orbiting satellites. By contrast, Icona Pop’s Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo take the back seat in “All Night,” granting most of the face time and mic time to the diverse cast of performers, who are identified by name and interviewed in documentary-style segments about the ball scene. In one segment, house member Father Jose talks about getting “turnt,” introducing viewers to the term and explaining its meaning in his community—the type of context absent from Cyrus’s use of the same vocabulary.

Icona Pop and director Dori Oskowitz do deserve credit for their sensitivity, but “All Night” might be a better model of respectful appropriation if it weren’t such a blatant vodka commercial. Product placement and sponsorship are industry norms, so the gratuitous shots of Absolut’s new vodka-wine fusion aren’t especially surprising. But the video, along with recent projects from Jay Z and Fiona Apple, highlights the increasingly noticeable way that commercial patronage often not only funds art these days—it colors it.

In Icona Pop’s case, it’s hard to focus on the video's supposed empowerment of its subjects when there's so much evidence its real mission is selling vodka. The YouTube description sets the tone—"ABSOLUT TUNE and Icona Pop are encouraging party-goers everywhere to enjoy ABSOLUT TUNE"—but the interviews and behind-the-scenes footage that are presented as a documentary don’t feel as candid as they’re made out to be. Absolut has based marketing campaigns around queer communities before, having previously partnered with RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the interview segments about family and celebration aren’t far off from the language of Absolut's promotional-campaign speak.

An ad exec might use the words "brand synergy" to describe the confluence between Absolut's target demographic and the fact that Icona Pop (who, like Absolut, are Swedish) called the performers "some of our best friends" on Twitter. But a casual fan might wonder how exactly the recent New York transplants became ingrained in this small New York subculture amid heavy touring, especially when that band has a history of dutifully sticking to the script of their endorsements (one song off their upcoming album is a re-working of a Samsung jingle from earlier this year). The biggest clue to the video's murky intentions is in its name: The clip appears to have originally been titled “All Night (Official Documentary Video)” before it was changed to “All Night (Official Extended Video),” as if even the team behind it knew that, in this case, they couldn’t get away with the "documentary" label.

That’s not to say commercial support and artistic statements are necessarily incompatible. As some pop stars have discussed, corporate bucks can enhance an artist’s vision without detracting from it. Practices that were once deemed “selling out” are now accepted and increasingly necessary career moves, and Icona Pop’s peers have been frank about the realities of their industry. Santigold, who has lent her songs to commercials by YouTube, Honda, Bud Light, and Converse, told New York magazine back in 2008 that selling lots of records isn’t how artists build financially stable careers anymore—much money is in licensing. Product placement, too, can offset a substantial chunk of music video production costs: Though she works with bigger names and bigger budgets than Icona Pop, Britney Spears reportedly received half a million dollars for featuring various products—for just a few seconds—in her “Hold It Against Me” video, and if it Beats by Dre hadn’t been eager to show off its new Pill speakers, some of the year’s most conversation-generating videos—the notorious “Blurred Lines” and “We Can’t Stop,” Azealia Banks’s trippy “Yung Rapunxel”—might not have looked the same.

But “All Night” isn’t the only case where sponsorship and product placement mess with an artist’s statement. Fiona Apple’s take on Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” ultimately suffers for its commercial ties, too. Apple’s cover, which she recorded for a Chipotle-commissioned short film about factory farming, is a gorgeous version of a much-beloved classic, and the video’s message isn’t at odds with Apple, a vegan, and her beliefs about our country’s food system. But where Santigold’s most-licensed tracks have a life outside of their commercials, Apple’s cover can’t escape its burrito-peddling context. Chipotle’s chief marketing officer Mark Crumpacker defended Apple’s creative independence, telling Denver’s Westword that she “gives you what she wants,” not what Chipotle wants. Yet in that same interview, he explains how not only did Chipotle pitch her the cover, but the very things Apple brings to the song—the angst and melancholy not heard in the sweetness of the original—were exactly why they recruited her the first place. It’s hard to tell when Apple’s creative license and interpretation come into play and when she’s doing exactly what Chipotle hired her to do.

Similarly, the reception to Jay Z’s 12th album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was tainted by the commercial stunts surrounding its release. Samsung pre-bought a million copies of the record, which it gave away for free to Samsung users who downloaded an accompanying app on their phones. Jay Z called the unusual rollout an innovation, which wasn’t unusual for a rapper who has long thought of himself as an entrepreneur (“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” he declared on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” in 2005, three years before he became one of the first big-name artists to sign a 360-deal with Live Nation). But his mission to write what he called the “#newrules” of the music business felt insincere: Jay Z wasn’t even a Samsung user, but got a hefty check to plug the unreliable platform anyway with a critically panned album. The Spin review of Magna Carta summarized the issue well:

It's hard to view this piece of music—this art—through any prism besides the business one. The songs themselves—overwrought yet somehow still undercooked—don't do much to shift the perspective, either. This is a businessman making a business deal, with listeners simply left to handle the moving parts. That could be, I guess, a description of any album released through a major label—but rarely has music of this visibility felt so much like an afterthought without having been literally contractual.”

And that’s what Icona Pop’s faux-documentary feels like: less a celebration than a business deal. The “All Night” video may very well go on to have a life of its own—if Chris Brown’s “Forever,” which started as a Doublemint ad, can do it, certainly Icona Pop can. But if it does, it'll be another victory for the idea that advertising can do more than support art; it can replace art.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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