Monday, June 4, 2012

Whose Wild is This?: "No Church in the Wild" Video Analysis

Last week, the video for Kanye and Jay-Z's "No Church in the Wild" premiered. As previous posts have probably suggested, I'm a Kanye fan. Yes. I know he's a jerk. No. I probably wouldn't want to hang out with him. Yes. There is definitely problematic treatment of women in his work. I don't want to dismiss these things, and I certainly don't want to dismiss the people who choose not to support his work because of these things, but I think he's lyrically brilliant and culturally critical. I like looking at the world through his lens; it teaches me things.

That said, I've been watching the new video for the past five days and can't come up with what to write about it.

Actually, to be more accurate, I came up with way too much to write about and none of it came to any conclusions, which might be worse than having nothing at all to say. Here, watch the video:

I had plenty of initial thoughts on this video, and Hov and Ye certainly intended to stir up some controversy with this piece. As the Daily Mail speculates, this video could be seen as an attempt to pay homage to the Occupy movement (and it's certainly drawing a parallel to the visuals of those protests) in order to make up for the criticism the Occupy movement placed upon Jay-Z when he sold his "Occupy All Streets" t-shirts. But I certainly don't think that reference is a cut-and-dry homage to populist uprisings, as the chaos displayed in this video is anything but simple. 

Here are the three main points of complexity that keep sticking with me:

1. The Statues

I'm not up on my art history (so if someone else is, and has some insight into what these particular statues represent, let me know!), but I think that the presence of the statues do a lot to interrupt a simple narrative of the oppressed (good guys) vs. the oppressor (bad guys). 

In general, these statues operate as stand-ins for Art and values like Beauty, Wisdom, and Justice. As the Daily Mail posts points out, these statues go hand-in-hand with the lyrics about Socrates and Plato, harkening back to our philosophical foundations and perceptions of the Truth. If the statues are to stand in for the things that define our humanity, what does their presence in the video represent? Because they certainly don't seem to be rooting for either side to win, in fact, they look downright disappointed with everyone:

If the very concepts of humanity--Truth, Wisdom, Beauty, Love--are turning their faces in shame and hanging on to survive, what does that mean for the war that's being fought around them? And what does that mean for these concepts if the war continues? If the two sides destroy one another into oblivion, what's left of our humanity? Does Truth, as it's conceived by humans, exist once humans cease to be? 

The other thing disrupting the clear narrative of good vs. bad is the faces of the police officers and the momentum of the action. Unlike the real Occupy images (which frequently showed passive, peaceful protesters being actively attacked by aggressive representatives of security and law, like at UC Davis), the protesters are clearly the aggressors in this video. The first shot is of a protester throwing a molotov cocktail into the police barrier and then physically attacking them. 

And while the protesters are certainly more physically visible (and much more multiracial and thus representative of more of America), the police are not without portrayals of empathy. In particular, the earliest shots of the protesters faces juxtaposed the earliest shots of the policemen's faces are complicated.

The protester's faces are often masked, and when their eyes are visible, they are cold and determined. On the other hand, the faces of the police as the mob descends on them are scared and maybe even a little regretful. We see these images immediately before acts of violence (perpetuated by both sides, but often delivered more effectively by the police).

If this video is playing upon Occupy imagery (and I think it definitely is), it's not doing it in any simple way. There is no clear winner of this war, and there's not even a clear sense of why the fighting is taking place to begin with. Both the police and the protesters have moments of humanity and moments of brutality, and perhaps that parallelism stands in as a reminder that we must either find a way to maintain our humanity together or lose it all together, but we'll be together in the end no matter which we choose. (Also, those statues may stand in as a slick nod to the Illuminati conspiracy theory because I think Jay-Z is toying with us like some modern day Paul is Dead enthusiasts.) 

2. Women? They Exist, Right?

The second thing I noticed about the video is that there appears to be no women in it. They're not fighting with the protesters or the police. They're not even shown as casualties being blown to bits somewhere that men have to defend. They're just . . . gone. 

Well, that's not entirely true. We do get some images that hint at women. 

There's this:

Yeah, that's a shot of a women's clothing display that's being attacked by protesters. How are they attacking it? By ramming a large, phallic object directly into one of the mannequin's crotches. Subtle, eh? 

This even further complicates the narrative of who--if anyone--is the "good guy." Here the protesters are shown as violent and the only interaction we get with "women"--if you can call mannequins in dresses women--is one of rape imagery at the hands of those protesters. 

I said the only interaction with women, but it's not quite the only imagery of women. There's also this:

A few of the statues are women. But, again, the statues are not interacted with by the people. They are standing above, seemingly mute and disappointed with the bloodbath around them. They can do nothing but silently watch, representing the values of humanity but having no ability to intervene in saving those values. Values which, incidentally, may exist without human interpretation, but can't be forged into this kind of tangible representation without culture and human manipulation (and, in this case, Western-normative interpretation). At least there are women here, though. (Is that Athena? Goddess of War?)

The absence of women is particularly frustrating to me because the lyrics to the song contain a sort of manifesto to sexual liberation that definitely--though not without problems--involves women:

We formed a new religion
No sins as long as there’s permission
And deception is the only felony
So never fuck nobody without tellin’ me

Thinkin’ ’bout the girl in all-leopard
Who was rubbin’ the wood like Kiki Shepard
Two tattooes, one read “No Apologies”
The other said “Love is cursed by monogamy”

What does it mean for this fictional apocalyptic landscape that the women are missing? And what does it mean that the only remnants of women are being brutalized or ignored? 

3. The Animals, Who's Really "Wild"?

Out of all of this, though, the thing that sticks with me the most is the images of animals. In addition to the animal sounds on the track itself (the roar of a lion and the shrieks of monkeys) there are three animals represented in the video: a dog, a horse, and an elephant. 

I think the way that these three are portrayed in the video is very important. 

We see the dog first:

This symbol of authority and power of an open-mouthed German Shepherd is immediately followed by this image. 

With that image, I feel like the use of animals in the video represents our own base nature. The people are being likened to animals, especially in their violence and (reasonless?) passion. When you couple this with the values the statues represent (which we could shorthand as "church"--the things that human seek beyond their animal nature, the understanding, the spirituality, the Truth), you realize that there may, indeed, be "no church in the wild." Once people have given into their animalistic pursuits, they cast off "church" (which doesn't necessarily have to be religion, but really any seeking of higher knowledge) and the values that a deeper understanding may have brought them. 

But there's more than just that going on with the animals. Consider the use of the horses:

Like the dog, the horses represent power and control. But neither the dog nor the horses represent this on their own. Alone, they are simply animals who operate on instinct, but they have been harnessed and trained by human beings to act out those humans' own desires. These animals have become tools to a human movement. 

Which makes the final image even more powerful (and perplexing):

While discussing this video, one of my students (a philosophy major--he also helped me get a clearer sense of how "church" could stand in for the pursuit of higher aims in general, so shout out to him) told me that elephants stand for wisdom. So what are we to make of this chained and bound elephant? It's not even clear who has chained it. It's standing in front of a line of police, but it's rearing up as protesters hold out flares to try to control it. If those other animals (the dog and horse) have been appropriated for human ends, can we assume that someone is trying to control the elephant (wisdom) in the same way?

For me, that interpretation means that both sides (the protesters and the police) are acting out of what they think is right, but they are so insistent on making their version of "right" universal, that they've lost sight of the damage they're causing. They are risking losing the very structure that keeps values like Truth and Beauty in place, because without the humanity that has worked to interpret and make those values accessible, what's left? (And also, where are the women?)

So, there are my thoughts. Obviously there's a lot of dots left to connect in that, but it's what I came up with. What do you think?


  1. Good interpretation!Thanks

  2. One of the statues looks like Saint Theresa to me.

    1. Which one and what is she a symbol of, please? I ask because I think the timing in which the statues are displayed plays an important role in the interpretation of the video.

  3. This is awesome. And you're interpretation of the missing and brutalized women.....scary! I love Kanye West (PAUSE...) but some of his past antics and his ties to the Illuminati make me raise an eyebrow. I'm speaking of the rumors of homosexuality within the Illuminati. Though I am major fans of the Ancient Greeks, I have always cringed at the all man state and their open sexuality (No offense to any homosexuals out there!). In the video there are no living women and the only instances of their existence are not too bright, as you stated. Could they be expressing some form of rebuking women? Is the brutal molestation of mannequin suggesting that vagina (women in general) is somehow, reponsible for something? If so, what; considering that most of our planet has appeared to have a patriarchial heirarchy since society started. Traces of this, I think, are found throughout the Abrahamic traditions starting from Eve's "causing" Adam to fall.

    Again, with the Illuminati thing, according to most of the rumors on it, yes they are in fact attempting to keep a chain aound wisdom. Unfortunately, I believe even Plato believed that all people shouldn't know everything, and that matters of import or extreme intellect should be left to the philosophy king and his (which I'm sure Plato intended it to be) people of trust. I couldn't tell exactly who the elephant belonged to either which maybe suggests that it belongs to no one? Maybe, instead of it meaning that someone has put a chain on it, this is saying that "true" wisdom is not attainable by Homo sapien sapiens on either side and therefore, we are causing more harm than good? It's days like this when I wish my music career was blossoming so I could hit one of them up and ask them. lol.

  4. The first statue is that of the Roman god of War, Mars.
    Though he delights in the bloodshed and violence of war, Mars is traditionally a coward and will flee battle at the slightest injury to his person.
    Perhaps Mars is symbolic of the police? Willing to engage in war and stand up for law until it becomes personally difficult or dangerous?

  5. The Elephant seems to be an apocalyptic statement about the coming collapse of a corrupt society.

    Elephants often symbolize Babylon. Ancient Babylon was a powerful society that used war elephants and elephants feature prominently in their art and sculpture. They have therefore become associated with opulence. After establishing his empire, Alexander the Great used elephants to guard his palace at Babylon (note the elephant in the video stands between the protestors and a government-looking building, facing outward).

    Babylon was portrayed in the Bible as a city condemned to destruction by God for its sinful nature. Babylon has therefore come to represent a society that has become morally corrupt and is doomed to collapse. The Babylonian Talmud says that unsaddled Elephants (like this one) are a bad omen.