I want to stop for a minute and acknowledge the care and effort that goes into the Basic Music Video. It’s one of the most under-acknowledged forms in the celebrity-persona-creation genre, and it deserves a moment of recognition and over-analysis.
The Basic Music Video is a video that focuses on its star in a generic setting in which very little happens other than a straightforward performance of the song (this is different from the stripped-down video, which takes a typically exciting celebrity and places them in a notably barren setting: i.e. Rihanna’s Stay).
The defining quality of the Basic Music Video is that there’s very little to say about it. It’s obvious, unfashionable, and highly palatable. It serves one function: to presents the most basic essence of its star’s persona, no questions and no second thoughts. It’s the music video equivalent of a head shot. You watch a pop star’s Basic Music Video and you quietly absorb who he is. When you’re done you understand without really knowing what it is that you understand.
I’m thinking about this because of Demi Lovato’s recent magisterial deployment of the form, Cool for the Summer, directed by Hannah Lux Davis. This is, by all accounts, a terrible music video. There’s no content, narrative, unique setting, or interesting coloration. It’s nothing but an over-saturated series of porn-y photo shoots. She looks over her shoulder, she writhes on a bed, she touches her butt. It’s really not very good entertainment.
It’s interesting that Demi Lovato is making this sort of video at this point in her career. Basic Music Videos usually accompany early career records. They saturate the world with an easily absorbed persona that solidifies itself in the public mindset. Once that image is solidified it can be put in interesting scenarios that become memorable and iconic. Rihanna could never have filmed We Found Love without first filming Unfaithful. Even Lady Gaga needed Just Dance before she could make Bad Romance. Taylor Swift stayed in Basic mode for four albums before finally coming into her own with Blank Space.
Demi Lovato has been around for awhile now and has a few legitimate hits, but she’s never been able to solidify a notable persona. This isn’t her fault –she’s ostensibly more interesting and just as talented as her more successful Disney Channel peers– but she’s so far failed to produce an image that’s unquestionably her own. Cool for the Summer is the first time I’ve seen a Demi Lovato video and thought, “oh, I know who that is”. Not because she does anything in the video that makes her stand out; just because she presents herself in a way that I find inexplicably notable.
Hannah Lux Davis is notably good at this. She hasn’t directed a single music video that I actually like, but she has a unique gift for pulling out remarkably unremarkable celebrity performances that end up lodged in the public mindset. Jessie J is inseparable (to me, at least) from her performance in Bang Bang. Tinashe is at her most Tinashe in 2 On. Demi Lovato is now for the first time someone other than the Nickelodeon star who sang the Frozen song, even if that someone has done literally nothing but writhe around and sweat under a pink light. I wish I could pinpoint the moments that Cool for the Summer makes this happen. The smug smile, the wink at the end, the dated-but-memorably-so swimsuit. It’s not any one thing; it’s a persistent, just-barely memorable attitude. A mediocre celebrity news blog will call this video “iconic” someday. A few have probably already done it.
It’s too early to say if Cool for the Summer will be an iconic video, or even a legitimate summer hit. If Demi’s career finally takes off in a way that includes actually memorable music videos, it might end up forgotten. But you can’t undersell its importance in her development. This isn’t her coming-out moment, but it might be her phenomenolization. She’s a voice with a name and now she has something resembling a face. If she can keep it together she’ll go on to great things like mass-murder, vomiting ribbons and rolling in piles of hotdogs. But until then she’s DEMI LOVATO, and that’s a whole lot more than she was two weeks ago.