One part Victoria’s Secret commercial, another part dream logic anti-narrative, and a CGI-assisted freakout all around, Adria Petty’s video for Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams” one-ups the minimalism of the instantly iconic internet meme and, um, Kanye approved “Single Ladies.” Director Jaka Nava’s video for “Single Ladies” already dropped the sensory overload expectations of music videos for a basically blank set, in front of which Beyoncé and her dancers could approximate the singularly-focused energy of a live dance performance. No narrative, no props (save for Beyoncé’s robot hand), just dancing.
That odd performance piece couldn’t and shouldn’t be repeated and it’s why follow-up videos for “Diva” and “Ego” at least conceded to a setting, but now Beyoncé and director Petty have found a way to make a video even more minimal, even more performance-based—via green-screen and computer-generated effects. Rarely ever is the use of CGI associated with minimalism—it’s more often connected to excess—but in “Sweet Dreams,” CGI’s employed to create a context-less void in which Beyoncé and her dancers can blow our minds anew.
The effects in “Sweet Dreams” are used to erase background and setting only to then fill the void-like digital canvas with a hot mess of bodies, clothes, and dance moves. A swirl of sophisticated and “street” dance moves, fashionable nightwear, elegant dresses and, finally, a bizarre gold bodice—it’s an excess of body and action, not filmic techniques. The strange sterility of CGI, that weird dipped-in-Photoshop feeling, is employed to create a new kind of chaos, not really possible without computer effects.
Funny then that this aggressively blank video begins in high concept, video mega-star excess. In what is the only literal concession to the song’s dream/nightmare conceit, there’s an introductory David Lynch-like mélange of eroticism and goofball symbolism that moves into an absurd computer-generated sci-fi landscape. But almost as a joke, when the explosive chorus—brought in by a subtle glass-breaking sound effect—dives through the song, all that excess is gone, the Sci-Fi Original Series-level special effects melt away and it’s just bodies on a white background.
By putting Beyoncé and her dancers in front of a green-screen, the concerns of cutting are gone and images can pop-up, disappear, and merge into one another thanks to the seamless perfection of computers. A blank canvas spotted by a sea of bodies. It’s the logical extension of Beyoncé’s recent dance videos, even more minimal, even more focused on physicality. It’s maybe the only place for Beyoncé to go at this point.
Though significantly less, well, bat-shit crazy than “Sweet Dreams,” John McSwain’s video for Yo La Tengo’s “Here to Fall” similarly employs precise computer effects towards something chaotically transcendent. Appropriately though, there’s something human about “Here to Fall.” It doesn’t wash over you, a visceral digital fever-dream like “Sweet Dreams,” the latest video from a pop music goddess, it’s a clever and tension-filled—both figuratively and literally—video from some Hoboken-based, worker-bee indie rock vets.
Yet there’s a similar thrill and broadening of computer effects’ potential in “Here to Fall” and “Sweet Dreams.” Both derive their immediacy from digital doubling and mirroring, one creating an explosion of dance moves and a clump of arched-back Beyoncés wailing, the other taking digital video of a skywriter, alternately powering through the air and dangerously tumbling downward, and freaking the footage to create hyper-precise psychedelic designs.
“Here to Fall” begins with a super-wide, disorienting tilt into the air, followed by images of the plane shooting-up into the sky and tumbling down, at any moment about to crash. The song’s hook, mumbled by lead singer Ira Kaplan, says “I know you’re worried.” It speaks to the song’s subject but also to the viewer, who’s in a perpetual state of nervousness by the skywriter’s daring. McSwain’s video aims to unsettle only to eventually comfort the viewer—the transition from that state of worry to a feeling of joy, made palpable when the skywriter’s no longer even flying or falling, but bending into itself, digitally manipulated to create wondrous imagery.
There’s even a clever nod to the impending doom felt while watching the opening moments of “Here to Fall” when McSwain doubles the images in a way to look as if two planes will soon collide and instead, they eat each other up and complete the tripped-out design. Something terrible doesn’t happen, something beautiful happens. There’s build-up and catharsis here—in a sense, a conventional narrative—that “Sweet Dreams” eschews or rather, “Sweet Dreams” is all catharsis.