The new Gwen StefanI video is a feat of timing, a study of speed and an apt metaphor for the panoptic power of surveillance culture. It is an incredibly choreographed and designed production which took months to prepare and minutes to execute. The video was shot live, in the span of a commercial break during the broadcast of the Grammys. Not only is the video bound by intense temporal and spatial restrictions it is timely in its rapid response to events outside of its loop.
The video is filled with easter eggs, both nods to Stefani's canon and esthetic as well as moments that reference the tabloid narrative of her real life. At one point she holds up a magazine emblazoned with the headline, "Gwen Pregnant with Alien Baby" and the bar she visits midway through the video is called Blake's in tribute to her boyfriend, Blake Shelton. Gwen has said that the song is about Blake, a relationship which was only confirmed publicly in December. Music Videos and films are typically slower to respond to social events because of the complexity of their production. But Make Me Like You is in real time.
The space of the video is an impressively designed circle, sections of which contain different sets, dancers, costume changes and themes. Stefani circles around the structure, moving increasingly towards its center. There’s a feeling of acceleration, both spatially (a spiral necessitates an increase in speed) and culturally. The tabloid furor over Gwen’s personal life has increased dizzyingly in a very short span of time.
The video is also curiously old school, its staged look is not a meta contrivance, but the product of an actual space. Contemporary video is formally and technologically sophisticated; it emphasizes tableaux (Lady Gaga, Judas), digital animation (Taylor Swift, Out of the Woods), and disappearing backdrops (Justin Bieber, Sorry) all in service of an immersive, seamless fantasy. The aesthetic failures and seams of Make Me Like You (like the rafters which are noticeable above the walls, and Gwen's skirt which is at one point off center) are not self aware flourishes but actual mistakes. It has the unsophisticated kitsch of game shows from the 1970s, recorded theater, and early green screen technology.
The video’s enclosed and circular space reminds me of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison designed so that a single watchman could monitor every inmate without their knowledge, and its implications on contemporary surveillance. The subject cannot know, at any given moment, if they are being watched or not, and so assumes that they are and acts accordingly. The panopticon controls the individual by the suggestion, not necessarily the reality, of its pervasiveness. In Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault sees in the panopticon a metaphor for the way institutions of power act on the person through an indefinable and generalized influence, forcing them to be both the object and the enforcer of a behavioral status quo. The individual is rendered into "the object of information, never a subject in communication".
Although every person is surveilled by unseen forces, (data mining, the NSA, police bodies, public cameras, etc.) celebrities operate within a gross exaggeration of this condition. Celebrities are self regulating, their behaviors molded by the suggestion, and increasingly, the reality, that they are constantly being watched. The circle in Make Me Like You recalls the circling, vulture-like mobility of the paparazzi. Gwen moves within an enclosed spiral, a space that can only point inward towards an disembodied watchman. That Gwen seems joyful in this video speaks to her ability, in her personal life, to cope with extraordinary circumstance.
Britney Spears’ video for Hold it Against Me offers a much darker interpretation of panoptic celebrity culture. Spears was famously unable to cope with the relentless scrutiny and surveillance she endured, which was so extreme it seems to have made irreparable damage to her personality. Until very recently, she has appeared anxious, unsure, and even fearful in public appearances. Britney, like Marilyn and Diana before her, reflected back to us the monstrous nature of our gaze. They are cautionary tales, equally romanticized and patholigized, for any woman who craves the limelight.
Make Me Like You highlights Gwen’s fascination with Old Hollywood, a time when celebrities could lead relatively private lives. She dresses up her private life in such artifice and stagey glamour it is both seen and obscured. She can’t permanently elude the gaze of the watchman, but can at least distract it momentarily by making a big scene. She’s jumping up and down, waving her arms; “Hey, big guy! Over here!”.