Hype Williams directs the video for John Legend’s highly addictive second single of 2006, “Heaven.” It’s a noteworthy cinematic attempt at referencing and reclaiming high art, but it ultimately fails for other classic reasons…
VIDEO: "Heaven" John Legend
In 2005, legendary hip-hop director Hype Williams directed Kanye West and Jamie Foxx in “Gold Digger,” which went on to be heralded as one of the top videos of last year. Though upon first viewing it may seem a typical hip-hop production, it has a central clever trick that makes it memorable. The standard posing beautiful women are in this context classic 50’s “pin-up” models come to life. But instead of identically replicating those models, Williams uses models that reflect a more colorful view of beauty (despite still being regulated by socially accepted body images).
For John Legend’s “Heaven” he uses a similar technique by bringing to life classic poses from religious paintings and iconography. Not surprisingly he sexes up the clothing and positioning of the women, but it’s not hard to play spot the reference in this video. But there’s more than just recreated paintings to reference Christianity here, the camera is constantly moving through a beautiful church while Legend sings from both within and outside it. The singer also often opens his arms to the sky, which brings to mind a number of religious concepts.
And when one focuses so heavily on this particular faith and the images of women associated with it, one can’t help but think of the Virgin Mary. Some of the referenced paintings, in their original forms, where inspired by this very concept and generalized view of women as “pure” creatures. The halo-like sun that hangs above a woman in one shot is a reminder of how influential this “virgin” belief has been over the years, and how harmful it has been to the self-image of women and the overall relationship between men and women. In recreating these ideals, Williams both captures the beauty of their surfaces and the ugliness of their interiors.
At the same time, some of these paintings are doing the opposite of celebrating religious ideals. The first scene, where a woman lies across a bed in front of draped red curtains, seems to be a take of Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” which is a gothic oil painting that is said to have inspired Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In that painting, the woman is virtually dead, and appears ghostly in a long white dress. Williams changes up the clothing but the reference to this strikingly anti-idealistic work is unmistakable. In fact, in hyper-sexualizing all the poses he visually reinforces this separation between the saintly and the erotic.
Instead he connects them through the song and the singer. Much like Kanye West, who thrives upon the contradictory nature of his lyrics, Williams juxtaposes the pure idealism of Legend’s hopes for his relationship against the admissions of faults and problems within it. Legend sings, “let’s hold hands like a young romance,” right after he says “let’s get back to touching” and right before he breaks back into the chorus, “heaven only know.” Thus we understand why he is sometimes shown within the church, and then other times outside of it. We may continue to strive for that ideal image of beauty, but we can’t deny our human desire and lust, and thus “perfection” remains a reality only in our minds, in “heaven.”
But while Williams circumvents that issue quite deftly, he falls head first into a more explicit and common problem. “Gold Digger” was a truly objectified look at women, the dancers where literally turned into pictures in dirty magazines, meant only to be ogled and consumed by hungry male viewers. “Heaven” could be faulted for the same reason, but it is in fact slightly different and actually more objectifying than “Gold Digger.” The pin-up models in West’s video where at the very least dancers, they gave proof of their existence as human beings outside of the video through their movement. On some level they are even expressing a sexual freedom from the confines of men’s magazines (albeit while existing within the confines of the male music video). But here, these women are literally attempting to resemble statues; they are supposed to look stiff and not alive.
The reference to Fuseli and Poe’s ghostly woman now becomes chilling, this is perhaps the most regressive and dangerous form of objectification. Because while there are far dirtier and more blunt dehumanizations of women in music videos, this particular one has the guise of “classiness” all around it. From the flash-photography cuts of the cinematography to panning shots of stained-glass, Williams wants us to think this is a smashing work of art dedicated to the beauty of women. But don’t be fooled, yes these women are beautiful, but they aren’t just works of art, they are women, human beings, alive – and they should be thus portrayed.