What Kind of Message Is Her Video Sending?

by Alex Kritselis

On Thursday morning, MTV announced the nominations for the 2014 Video Music Awards (VMAs) — which is kind of strange when you consider the fact that the television network doesn’t even really show music videos anymore — but I'll just go with it. Unsurprisingly, Beyoncé nabbed the most nominations of the morning with a grand total of eight. Meanwhile, rappers Eminem and Iggy Azalea followed closely behind, earning seven nods each.

I must admit: I’m not a big fan of music videos in general. I feel like they very rarely add anything new or exciting to songs, and these days, it seems as though they’ve become more of an obligation than an exciting opportunity to expand upon a track's story or meaning (a music video’s YouTube views now help improve a song’s position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, so artists and record labels alike have a vested interest in continuing to make them).

That being said, the VMAs do feature an interesting category that you won’t see on other music-related awards shows: Best Video With a Social Message. The category seeks to highlight videos that do more than just show our favorite artists rocking out and having fun, but rather, convey an important social message. Music videos that actually have a purpose beyond depicting a bunch of people partying, drinking, and dancing? Now that I’m very interested in.

There are six videos nominated for Best Video With a Social Message at this year's VMAs. Let’s take a look at the messages these videos are sending:

Angel Haze feat. Sia — "Battle Cry"

Summary: In the music video for “Battle Cry,” New York-based rapper Angel Haze (real name Raeen Angel Wilson) walks down a dusty desert road, confronting visions of her troubled past along the way: growing up in a religious cult, being raped as a child by a family friend, and feeling so alone that, at one point, self-mutilation felt like her only option. It’s a bold, visually arresting video, and the fact that the events depicted in it are based on Haze’s real-life experiences makes the whole thing that much more powerful.

The message: No matter what you’ve been through in life, you have to keep fighting. After all, as they say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Best lyrics: “Despite the fact that it gets hard, you take it all and you still go/ Take the sun, and you still grow/ Lose your light, and you still glow/ I been there, I’m still here, and I know how you feel, so…”

Avicii feat. Dan Tyminski — "Hey Brother"

Summary: The narrative in the “Hey Brother” music video seems pretty cut and dry — until the final 40 seconds. That's where things become a bit confusing. Initially, the video appears to be about two brothers growing up in wartime America. The two boys have a close relationship, which is tested when the older brother is sent off to fight. Sadly, he doesn’t make it back.

Near the end of the video, the younger boy is seen holding an American flag at his brother’s grave. But then, in a confusing twist, we hear the younger boy call the person who we thought was his brother “dad” during a flashback. So, I guess they’re not really brothers after all? Perhaps the younger boy just thought of his father as a brother because they were so close? Regardless, the video is about the strength of familial ties, and it tells a moving story.

The message: A familial bond cannot be broken — even by the horrors of war.

Best lyrics: “Oh, if the sky comes falling down for you/ There’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do...”

Beyoncé — "Pretty Hurts"

Summary: In the music video for “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé struggles to navigate the behind-the-scenes world of a beauty pageant, ultimately discovering that trying to live up to society’s ridiculous beauty standards is impossible, and it will never, ever make her feel happy.

The message: It’s time to start loving the reflection you see staring back at you in the mirror — the pursuit of perfection is silly and futile. I really like "Pretty Hurts'" message and I think that it's an important one, but something about the song has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way. The video is well-acted and gorgeously shot, but it’s difficult to take this kind of “just be yourself” message seriously coming from someone like Beyoncé. When has Beyoncé ever challenged Western notions of beauty in her career? I mean, I swear I've seen her wearing some of the same "pageant queen" outfits she's wearing in the "Pretty Hurts" video on tour!

In fact, I would argue that in many ways, the image Beyoncé presents to the public reinforces societal beauty standards. If you’re going to talk the talk Beyoncé, you should be able to walk the walk, too. On the one hand, it’s important to know that even people who are considered to be beautiful or “perfect” (*cough* Beyoncé *cough*) also struggle with self-acceptance issues. On the other, put your money where your mouth is, Bey! Or at least own up to the fact that you've been complicit in upholding problematic and unrealistic beauty standards in the past, and perhaps acknowledge that that's something you'd like to change in the future. Otherwise, how can we take "Pretty Hurts'" message to heart?

Best lyrics: “We try to fix something, but you can’t fix what you can’t see/ It’s the soul that needs the surgery…”

J. Cole — "Crooked Smile"

Summary: Lyrically, much of “Crooked Smile” urges women not to worry about their physical flaws (like a crooked smile, for instance), but it’s a little difficult to take that message seriously when J. Cole advises women to love themselves for who they are in one line, and then casually refers to them as “bitches” in the next. The music video, however, tells a different story altogether, instead urging viewers to “reconsider” the war on drugs. The “Crooked Smile” video is dedicated to Aiyana Stanley-Jones, a 7-year-old girl who was shot and killed during a police drug raid on her home in Detroit in 2010. In the video, J. Cole plays a marijuana dealer who is celebrating his daughter's birthday. When the DEA arrives late at night to perform a drug bust, she is shot and dies.

The message: Put simply: We need to re-examine the War on Drugs.

Best lyrics: “We don’t look nothin’ like the people on the screen/ You know the movie stars, picture perfect beauty queens/ But we got dreams and we got the right to chase ‘em/ Look at the nation, that’s a crooked smile braces couldn’t even straighten…”

Kelly Rowland — "Dirty Laundry"

Summary: The concept behind the music video for “Dirty Laundry” is very simple: in a series of shadowy shots, often surrounded by water (there’s some symbolism there, I think), Kelly Rowland finally comes clean and airs her “dirty laundry,” a.k.a. the true story of her post-Destiny’s Child career. In addition to admitting to feeling jealous of Beyonce’s success as a solo artist, Rowland details what it was like to be trapped in an abusive relationship, completely separated from her family and friends. At no point does the “Dirty Laundry” video feel like a ploy for attention. Rowland isn't sharing juicy gossip with us — this is her life, and her emotional journey in the video looks totally genuine to me.

The message: Sometimes, sharing the details of our struggles with others, no matter how painful it is or how vulnerable it makes us feel, is the only way to begin to truly heal.

Best lyrics: “Let’s do this dirty laundry, this dirty laundry/ When you’re soaked in tears for years, it never airs out/ When you make pain look this good, it never wears out…”

David Guetta — "One Voice"

Summary: DJ David Guetta released the “One Voice” music video in November 2013 in order to help raise money for the United Nations’ typhoon relief efforts in the Philippines (as well as other humanitarian projects). The video alternates between scenes of Guetta playing music for a massive international crowd and scenes that display various hashtags that complete the phrase, “The world needs more…” (“#love,” “#heart,” “#empowerment,” etc.).

The message: We all need to work together if we want to affect real, lasting change in the world. Speaking about his partnership with the U.N., Guetta said, “When I play, people are as one on the dance floor. I want the same for the world. No matter how busy you are or where you are, we all share this planet and help each other. We should be as one.”

Best lyrics: “So, if you want to make the mountains move, there can only be one voice/ There can only be one voice…”