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.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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