In my last Video Dose, I argued that most modern videos are indebted to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in one way or another. About the same time that article was being posted I also realized that every video I had highlighted had been from the 80s. So, in order to change things up and simultaneously point out an example of MJ’s influence, this week’s Video Dose is Bat For Lashes’ “Daniel.”
In the first half of 2009 Bat For Lashes, aka Natasha Khan, was one of those artists I kept hearing about but hadn’t seriously gotten around listening to. When I finally did, I was impressed. She has a rich but wispy voice and an eclectic array of influences for her sometimes pulsing, sometimes silky songs. Reviewing her 2009 album Two Suns, Rolling Stone said she might feel “comfortable at some Renaissance fair, playing only for unicorns,” but that “somehow, the music melts away the potential for hokeyness.”
“Daniel” was the first single from Two Suns and a top 40 hit. The video came out last March and was directed by Johan Renck. Basically, it’s a take on the common “singer-standing-room” genre. Khan starts off singing, some people in black come out and rub up against her, she drives away, and finally meets some guy, presumably Daniel.
(View the video for Bat for Lashes’ “Daniel” here.)
The “Daniel” video has been met with a fair amount of critical praise. It was nominated for an MTV VMA for best breakout video and, much more prestigiously, appears on Pitchfork’s “Best Music Videos of 2009” list. It’s entertaining and engaging, if not wholly groundbreaking.
What makes the video most interesting, however, is how it adapts traditional music video conventions that were popularized by videos like “Thriller.” For example, there’s a lot of choreography, group dancing, and high production values. Of course, it’s unlikely that Renck and Kahn were thinking about Michael Jackson as they conceptualized the video, but the final result demonstrates how standardized those conventions have become; today audiences simply accept “cinematic” videos as the norm. If it doesn’t immediately seem like “Daniel” is indebted to any particular video, it’s because the imagery has become so ubiquitous it feels natural.
To the credit of the video’s producers, “Daniel” also upends its genre by making the star a victim. The dark figures — which sort of look like Fruit of the Loom’s grape character as interpreted by Swedish band The Knife — don’t dance with Kahn, they symbolically molester her. Whereas a video like “Thriller” was all about macabre spectacle and portrayed MJ as the architect of his own world, “Daniel” is an image of alienation. And with evaporation of heady, consumerist optimism, “Daniel” seems like a particularly appropriate re-rendering of a traditional idea.
All this isn’t to say that Bat For Lashes is the next Michael Jackson. She isn’t. But her video is a strong entry that takes music video conventions and adapts them well to her brand of art. It deserves the accolades it has received and hopefully paves the way for more.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.