On December 4, 2015

Sorry not sorry

A full month has passed in which my minor obsession with Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” music video has not subsided; I suppose it may be time to come clean. Released on Oct. 22, 2015, the clip has so far notched only about half as many YouTube views as “What Do You Mean?” the lead single from Bieber’s fourth studio album “Purpose,” but in my opinion “Sorry,” the second single, is the catchier song and by far the more interesting video.

If you haven’t seen it, the video consists of a three-minute dance routine choreographed by Parris Goebel and performed by the women of the ReQuest and Royal Family hip-hop crews from New Zealand, set against a clean white backdrop. I highly recommend watching it. The dancing of course is amazing—a twitchy, elastic combination of perfectly executed synchronizations and goofier, more spontaneous individual movements—but the real miracle of the video is that Justin Bieber, the multiplatinum, internationally famous recording artist who sings the song in question, never appears in it.

It may not sound that radical—famous music videos in which the musician never shows his or her own face include Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” and Sia’s “Chandelier”—but Bieber’s absence within an otherwise typical pop video full of unidentified booty-shaking women is striking in how it frees the dancers to engage in genuine, touching, and funny self-expression instead of existing solely as sexual props within the self-involved, vainglorious narrative of the video’s “star.” Yes, the women here are beautiful (without necessarily conforming to the narrow prototype favored by Hollywood casting directors), and the dance moves are unmistakably sexual, but they don’t necessarily imply seduction, let alone subservience. There’s a certain too-cool quality to these sunglasses-clad ladies, who through winks and exaggerations infuse typical hip-hop moves—the twerks and gyrations—with irony and even an occasional touch of derision.

In short, the dance is communicative of the dancers themselves (their joy and frustration and snark); it’s not a performance of someone else’s fantasy. Counterintuitively, the independent nature of their performance serves to enrich the content of the song itself more than a traditional star-centric music video narrative conceivably would have. Lyrically, “Sorry” is composed of a rather thin acknowledgment of male wrongdoing, addressed to the nameless, voiceless, female “you” of every popular male-penned love song (in this case, an ex-girlfriend). The female-only video serves as a necessary supplement to Bieber’s homophonic confession, supplying the other side of the story: he asks for forgiveness, and their response—affectionate, teasing, but without bitterness—is no, maybe, whatever.

The expressive back-and-forth created here would be impossible if Bieber had shown up in the video, unavoidably exerting his control over the artistic product; his fame and its attendant spotlight would have effectively canceled out the dancers’ “voices,” subsuming them within his storyline. Also, one suspects that, by incorporating himself into the dance routine, Bieber could only have slowed these women down; leaving out the singer lets the pros do their thing to their full capabilities, and Bieber’s willingness to remain on the sidelines—an act of humility and contrition—additionally supports the thematic content of the song.

Watching “Sorry,” one inevitably thinks of Taylor Swift’s video for “Shake It Off” from last year, which similarly employed a fleet of professional dancers, placing them up against blank backdrops that were somehow suggestive of a Target commercial. “Sorry,” with its vast array of jazzily contemporary outfits and quirky accessories, selected as if to showcase the full range of a department store’s clothing section, conveys this same impression even more potently. (Is Target—having realized that the most effective form of advertising is that which never reveals name, logo, or intention—secretly funding these music videos?)

The dancers in “Shake It Off” are probably just as talented as the ones in “Sorry,” but Swift herself occupies the focal point of the former video, enclosing the dancers within an egotistical narrative in which her winsome, fun-loving incompetence cancels out their superior artistic-athletic talent. Through caricature, the cultivated technical abilities of ballerinas and break-dancers are made to look ridiculous—clinical and overdone—beside Taylor’s “relatable” and impulsive gracelessness. Personality triumphs over skill as the video tells Swift’s story of “just being herself,” and the dancers serve only as her foil—they must not have any personalities of their own.

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