WHETHER HE'S CREATING A WORLD FOR ONE OF OUR BELOVED POP ICONS TO INHABIT OR OPINIONATING ON HOW THE PUBLIC VIEWS THOSE SAME STARS, THE DIRECTOR OF SOME OF TODAY'S MOST POPULAR MUSIC VIDEOS DOESN'T HOLD BACK
Anthony Mandler has just come from the set of a new video he’s directing for Jennifer Hudson. For it, she (with the help of the song’s producer, Pharrell Williams) is “reinvented” as a disco-dancing free spirit—and aren’t we all? It’s what Mandler is known for, now: he squeezes out the high drama diva in all his stars, as in those epics he directed in 2012-13 for Taylor Swift (“Trouble”), Justin Bieber (“As Long As You Love Me”), Nicki Minaj (“Starships”) and Lana Del Rey (“National Anthem” and Tropico). What these videos have in common, other than their massive amounts of YouTube plays, are a sort of backwards lean towards the sincerely cinematic. Hanging from the stares of today’s short attention-spanned youth, it’s hard to imagine that some of the most popular videos of last year were over four minutes long. But it’s the action added in that keeps these windows open, as opposed to the lyric videos that use only the audio from the album edit of the same song. In Mandler’s versions of these dramas, characters have lines, songs break for uncomfortable silence, and anticipation builds as the singer finds her way back to where she started.
At this point, 40-year-old Mandler is a pop-music marathon man. He’s directed 16 of Rihanna’s best videos, including “Diamonds,” which has almost reached the 400 million YouTube views mark a year later, videos for two of last year’s biggest pop hits, Taylor Swift’s “22” and Selena Gomez’s “Come & Get It,” plus multiple videos each for mega-stars Drake, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Shakira, Trey Songz, Usher, Mary J. Blige, Eminem, and the list continues. When we get him on the phone, he’s predictably brimming with on and off screen drama: he’s a proud newlywed, with a broken hand in a cast, standing in front of his almost-constructed Venice Beach “art-directed monolith.” And still, he has the focus to contemplate the current state of the music video—and all its implications.
We've reached what he calls “the other end of the renaissance” when it comes to brevity in the genre. “It used to be that there was a rare kind of experience in music video, á la Michael Jackson or, like, NWA, or 'Cop Killer,' these videos that struck us once in a while and got written about,” says Mandler. “Now it's every week there's something that catches us, and it's major news. Beyoncé drops an album full of visuals, and it's dissected and talked about. Or Lana's Tropico, this 30-minute piece that didn't used to have a platform, and now it does—it has this incredible platform.”
YouTube, with its billions of possible views, challenges directors and labels in different ways than its cable-broadcast predecessors did, but the lesson is the same: it proves that musicians are simply not just the music they make. It proves, too, that music and artists, as Mandler says, “have to live and move and blog and reblog and be devoured.”
Mandler has certainly had his part in this renaissance, and his video work in 2013 alone is proof of his faith in the medium. His earlier efforts, too, show no mercy in that push to move the medium forward. For 2009's video for Jay-Z’s “Run This Town,” Mandler remembers talking with Jay-Z about turning traditional hip-hop braggadocio on its head: “That was really about my travels to Jamaica and Brazil and Africa, these places where power was not really about money, it was about strength and people, it was about how when you snapped your fingers how many people can be there. And that sort of mythical sense of the power of many united under one front, versus 'I have money, I have cars, I have fame so I run this town.'”
Mandler continued that conversation this year in “Holy Grail,” dealt with in the dreamy nonlinear style that's become the director's signature. “I particularly was really excited and happy with the work I did with Jay-Z for 'Holy Grail,' putting a microscope on the topic that we've talked about so many times: wealth and fame and excess and what's too much and what satisfies you and drives you. But he does it in a way of turning it inside out, you know, taking the concept of the Holy Grail and almost making a negative out of it. And so we wanted to create a piece that almost made you feel like you were trapped and you didn't know which way was up and part of that was re-editing the song, slowing the song down, speeding the song up, you know, starting the song not where you'd expect it, so we were actually playing with what the public expected, because they knew the song so well, so the song is not what you think it is.”
It also frustrates what the average YouTube viewer wants out of a music video: it demands your full attention. If you just wanted to place to the song in the background of another activity, you're better off choosing another video.
Mandler has made fewer videos in 2013 than in previous years, spending a lot of last year completing ad campaigns like Ray Liotta's wordless 1800 Tequila spots and the Cadillac “Dinner Party” campaign instead, which have become part of his canon. Looking at Mandler’s 2013 retrospectively, particularly his work for The Weeknd, Jay-Z, and Lana Del Rey, certain themes and aesthetic concerns start to become obvious. They deal with idolatry and worship in a way that Mandler says is “more crooked than straight.” They focus on what we put on pedestals—pop culture icons, lost lovers, fame in the abstract—and how those things are both necessary and destructive. This is a duality Mandler's fascinated with, using as inspiration both the conflicted antiheroes of gritty 1970s New Hollywood films—“where everything started breaking down, as our system was lying to us and castles were crumbling”—and today’s young pop stars.
“I think that we live in a very interesting time when it comes to our idols," Mandler says. "One minute you see Miley Cyrus twerking onstage, looking horrific, and the next minute she's on the red carpet and looks incredible, and she's a finalist for Time's ten most influential people, or, you know, one minute Rihanna seems to be flailing and completely out of control, and the next she's breaking records left and right and looks flawless. Our matinee idols are very conflicted versus past eras, where they had to have this veneer of perfection. Opening that up and seeing the faults in the people we idolize will shift culture, because we accept people's highs and lows and therefore we start to accept our own.”
These dualities and the cracking of idols' veneers culminates in Lana Del Rey's Tropico, a 30-minute musical including three songs off her Born To Die album, which also seems like the final part of a trilogy that includes last year's “National Anthem” and “Ride” videos, also directed by Mandler. Stuffed with both Mandler's and Del Rey's own obsessions, it features John Wayne and East L.A., strippers and the Garden of Eden. The visual world the director and his muse have together created has been as instrumental as the music itself in understanding the way Del Rey's work deals with the American myth, feminine sexuality, and the way those are wrapped up in race and class.
Excessive, contradictory, and surreal, Tropico, and all of Mandler's recent work is meant to exist in a new music video ecosystem that Mandler himself helped usher in, where music videos bleed beyond the edges of the VEVO channel, or even the laptop or telephone screen. They're pieces designed to be talked about or retweeted, to be obsessed over for a month and then forgotten. Mandler realizes he has to walk several different lines.
“That's what you want, right? How do we spark controversy but still entertain people? I think with Tropico, or all the Lana pieces, we asked, 'how do we invoke conversations but still entertain?' There's some people that just want to be mesmerized and taken by the work and there's other people that want to be a little more theoretical about it and have a conversation piece. I think a great video does both.”
As Mandler moves into feature films—Tokyo Vice, starring Daniel Radcliffe, begins shooting in 2014—the lessons he's learned from his music and commercial work about capturing distracted audiences and finding unexpected or provocative ways to tell stories can, if nothing else, give us something new to talk about. Lucky for him, he’d want nothing more.