Thursday, March 28, 2013

Analysis of Yeah Yeah Yeah's "Sacrilege": What Sins are in Your Bed?

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs released a new video for their single "Sacrilege" this week. I was already in love with this single, a powerfully voiced song with simple repetitive lyrics that hints at the New Orleans inspiration for the upcoming album Mosquito.

The song has very few lyrics. It starts out with a woman singing that she's "fallen from the sky, falling for a guy." The guy has a "halo round his head" and they say they have "feathers in our bed." The rest of the song is a repetition of this melodically crooned intro and the words "Sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege you say" sung with increasing power and passion.

Alone, the song brings into question our cultural assumptions about sex, purity, and sin. Taken with the video, though, it does more than question those assumptions; it indicts them.

You should watch it. Maybe twice. (Edit: Okay, more than twice. See the update at the end on a major mistake I made in this analysis.) 

The video opens up with a fire blazing while a crowd looks on. Through non-linear editing that often shows the same scene replayed from a slightly different perspective, we begin to piece together how this blaze began and who is sitting at the center of it: a half-naked young woman tied to a post and a masked young man lying on the ground. 

As the story moves forward, we see that the onlookers staked the woman to the ground and piled scrap lumber around her before setting it ablaze. The utter glee in some of their faces as they look on underscores their mob mentality. The parallels to witch hunts are pronounced. 

Further details start to unfurl. The masked man lying on the ground is shown running. He's shot through the chest by one of the people who will later be participating in the witch hunt. The video moves back in time and he's being shoved to a bed. The time jumps again, and the mask is being taped to his face. 

The primary narrative arc becomes clear. This man and woman were in bed together when the mob appeared at their door. The woman ran off through the window while the assailants grabbed the man, masked him, and sent him running before they shot and killed him. Meanwhile, the woman flees for her life, but it's no use. She's in the middle of a small, rural town and it seems like everyone in it is pursuing her. She's caught, tied to a pole, and burned as she perches next to her lover's body. 

The rest of the video, then, is flashback. We flash back to scenes of the girl having sex with several of the mob participants. In each one, she seems to play a different role.

She could be the innocent teen necking in the backset of a car chewing bubblegum:

The Hester Prynne character sleeping with the town preacher:

The conservatively-dressed housewife-type making out at the top of the stairs:

The voyeuristic tease who has sex in the middle of a public business in broad daylight:

The bored other woman:

 Who sleeps with the both the adulterous husband and wife:

And a sophisticated lady of taste:

While neither her partners nor her personas remain constant, one thing does: she doesn't show much sign of enjoyment. She's frequently bored during her sexual escapades. 

Her partners don't seem to mind that she's playing all of these roles as long as she continues to be their object of fantasy. She is not a person to them, but a game to be played. 

There's one role, though, that she's not allowed to play: wife. And it is only when she's assuming this role that we see a hint of a smile, a sign of some enjoyment. 

The townspeople were unfazed by the fact that their toy was a plaything for their neighbors. As long as she could still fulfill the fantasies they needed her to fulfill and as long as she could still carry their perceived sins by behaving as the "town slut," they were satisfied. After all, you can hardly blame someone for sleeping with the "town slut." That's just what she does. When the "town slut" takes herself out of the game, though, all of the guilt that she carried in the double standards of a culture that deems her sinful while her partners often live their lives without reproach was too much. Rather than face the hypocrisy of their sexual standards, they opt to destroy any signs of their transgressions. 

Make no mistake. This is not an act of in-the-moment passion. These people have met, discussed, and plotted. This is an organized double-homicide that acts a cleansing ritual for the town as a whole. They must literally burn the reminders of their sins. 

All the while the lyrics echo over these scenes of violence interspersed with scenes of her peaceful marriage. "It's sacrilege, sacrilege, sacrilege you say."

The sacrilege, in the eyes of these people, is not her promiscuity. It is not infidelity, hers or their own. It is her audacity at thinking that she can remove herself from the role of sexual plaything to the role of autonomous person. Her marriage is the sacrilege because it is an act that allows her to define herself on her own terms rather than society's misogynistic ones. 

This video depicts an act of marriage that so enrages a group of hypocritical zealots who cannot handle having their own lens of scrutiny turned upon themselves that they lose their ability to reason or act as individuals, turning to mob rule. As a mob, they collapse into a series of more and more extreme acts of hate and violence, culminating in expressions of glee at the destruction of something they once "loved." 

Interesting, isn't it, that this video first aired on March 26, 2013, the day the Supreme Court heard it's first case about the constitutionality of gay marriage bans. 

Perhaps it's time we examine what "sacrilege" really is and realize that what happens "in our beds" is not for a mob to decide or govern. Marriage can be a powerful act, and those in power don't like to share. 

Update: After someone with an eye more discerning from mine left a comment saying that the man they masked and shot was the preacher (and not her husband), I compared some screenshots and realized I was wrong. It is definitely the preacher they break in on and mask and shoot. I'm really disappointed because I think that "girl sleeps with preacher and gets seen as sacrilegious" is much less interesting than what I thought the video was doing in the first place. I still think it's an interesting look at sin, sex, and hypocrisy, but it's a lot less interesting to me than it was before. (And thanks to the commenter that pointed out my error!)


  1. Excellent breakdown of the music video.

    One thing I was curious about - is the guy who gets the mask taped down on his face the same as the woman's husband? I couldn't tell if the mob was just killing one of her random partners or her husband - which would add an extra layer of absurdity.

  2. I wasn't sure at first, but I'm pretty sure it's the husband. You can see his face when they tape the mask down and then in the final scene when they're kissing at the wedding.

  3. StoppedByFromFeministeMarch 31, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    The dead man is not the husband, it's the priest. You can see her removing his priestly collar in bed (2:15 - 2:20 or so).

    I also think the author has her timeline wrong. Based on the general flow of the video, what comes at the end of the video happens earliest. In that case the woman gets married THEN has sex with all those people. I believe she's even wearing her wedding dress when she's making out with the sheriff in the bathroom (3:14 to 3:24).

    While I don't think that changes the overall message of sex, sin, and hypocrisy outlined by the author, I do think it renders her specific interpretation invalid. In my view, the video is showing a town that is a-ok with the woman having multiple affairs but NOT with her sleeping with the priest because that's "sacrilege." It's not that they got mad because she wanted to stop being the "town slut" (author's term and interpretation) but because she carried it too far, having sex with the one person they deemed out of bounds. The underlying message, I believe, is about the place of religion in society and the arbitrary but violently enforced boundaries thereby created.

    Of course the allusion to the burning of witches isn't a coincidence. I think the message there is that while both the priest and the woman were murdered, she was more harshly condemned and treated in a more cruel fashion because of her gender (the townspeople seeing her as a dangerous and evil temptress). She was burned alive while he was shot and killed first (a "merciful" death, comparatively).

  4. No. The dead man is the husband. You can see when they put the mask on him at 1:42. She is in bed with her husband when they break down the door, not the priest. You can also tell because the husband then morphs into the priest before showing a montage of all the different people, of which the priest is just one.

    I am less sure about the timeline, but I feel like the people ha already slept with her when the wedding occurred. They are all (including the priest) shooting her cruel smirks as she walks down the aisle.

  5. You're right that she's in her wedding dress in that bathroom scene, though. I guess that could mean that she continues sleeping with other people after the ceremony, but it could also mean that she had one last tryst right before she walked down the aisle. I also think the townspeople are planning the witch hunt during the wedding, this their sideways glances and whispers.

  6. Haha. I was so sure, but I just watched it like six times and now I can't be sure. The husband and the priest look too much alike! It is definitely a completely different message if it is the priest.

  7. actually if we look at all the roles played it basically tells us that these are not real affairs, but the fantasies of the people.

    when she walked down the aisles, basically everyone had their eyes on her n proceeded to have fantasies of her. then when they discovered she is having an affair with the priest, they feel a sense of betrayal although they merely had fantasies of her. this shows the power of people's fantasies, that it gives people a sense of ownership over someone.

    also the fact that basically all the fantasies of these people are pretty wrong anyways since the lady is married, the fact that they took action as soon as she slept with the priest, not to mention no legal action was taken but instead they burned her hints people's attitude towards religion. when they fantasise about the woman, it is ok but when it ties to someone religious or simply religion because it is the basis of morals, it is a sin. while it is definitely wrong when priests touch little boys but is this religious view basically why so many more people place the spotlight on the church compared to other child molestors?

    moreover, the whole burning of the two shows how the people hope to burn away a sense of their feeling of having been sinful, as she is the root of their sinful fantasies. the priest is also burned because he symbolises religion, the basis of the morality that defines the reason why their fantasies were sinful.

    it is all the more ironic as the burning is similar to that of burning witches the church used. it also comments on the idea of canon law punishments - should we take action in our own hands (obviously church's don't burn people anymore it's just a metaphor) the old way or should we do something else about it?

  8. I still think it's the priest, but that doesn't invalidate the interpretation of the author when she states, "The sacrilege, in the eyes of these people, is not her promiscuity. It is not infidelity, hers or their own. It is her audacity at thinking that she can remove herself from the role of sexual plaything to the role of autonomous person. Her marriage is the sacrilege because it is an act that allows her to define herself on her own terms rather than society's misogynistic ones. " Rather, I think it can allow for greater complexity in meaning and therefore interpretation, in that both this and the idea that it was her having sex with the priest that was 'sacrilege'.. small towns more easily produce cult-like/groupthink mentalities (e.g. religious fanatics)? Possibly? Still a great analysis - I especially liked the breakdown in the roles she played; I hadn't broken that part down yet. Very interesting. Great story. And bonus points for making the connection to the March 26th date. Sincerely.

  9. The video depicts the girl engaging sexually with the people of the town, but while watching it I wondered whether the audience was expected to believe that everything actually occurred. Because of the variation in her demeanor in each scene I understood her to be an archetype or the "flashbacks" to be fantasies. I think if the scenes of this video were played in a chronological order it would remain deeply confusing, but it certainly raises a lot of questions about sex, morality, religion and cruelty.

    I think the writing was probably very deliberate, but the format opens the story up to a wide range of interpretations.

  10. You're right. It is the priest. I think it would have been way more interesting the other way, though! :) Thanks for the nice comments!

  11. That's really interesting. She does seem to be very archetypal in each of the flashbacks. It could be that those are the images the people are playing of her as she walks down the aisle: their own fantasies, not her real self.

  12. It is not the priest that is shot but the husband.The husband is the one she is caught with when the mob breaks into the house.!!!Your first analysis stands correct!!

  13. You have an interesting interpretation. I couldn't see the actor who played her husband in any subsequent scenes. I wonder why.

    The video's theme seems to be about the hypocrisy of slut shaming and the paradox of being able to judge and enact consequences with questionable moral authority.

    I came across your post when I was looking up interpretations of the video. I wrote a lengthy overdetermined comment here:

  14. The sacrilege is that she got caught.
    She was a slut, and everyone thought they were the only ones in on the action, until one of them sees her with the priest.
    He can't handle it.
    Neither can anyone else who thought they were the only ones in on the action.
    They decide it's sacrilege.
    They don't know about each other.
    They decide to 'hang' the priest and make an example of the slut.
    It's sacrilege because all of them were duped.
    It's sacrilege because they all need revenge.

  15. Very interesting discussion on this. This music video is the most thought provoking that I have seen in as long as I can remember. I would offer my own interpretation of this as illustrative of how subjective and arbitrary the nature of "morality", "taboo" and "sacrilege" is in our society. None of the mob participants had any problem with their sexual pursuits with the young lady. None of them seem to be aware of each other's mutual relationships with the young lady. They are all aware that she is married and therefore all participants in adultery. Her crossing "the line" was sleeping with the priest. The priest's crossing the "line" is sleeping with a parishioner over whose wedding he presided. All of the mob members slept with her and participated in the wedding....yet the priest alone is the one whose participation warrants a brutal death, in which the town folk rejoice.

    I believe this video points out that while individual cross moral lines everyday, sacrilege, taboo, "the line," or what we euphemistically call common values, really equates to mob rule....that is, what will get the bulk of us to go crazy....and of course carry out two sins as well.

    Of course there is nothing moral about the adultery, the murders, etc. I am not defending any part. It is just interesting of what takes the mob over the edge. On another note....was the "husband" part of the doesn't look like it from my recollection and I think that would be a profound statement as well.

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