Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Since He's Been Gone

Jessica Simpson’s video for “I Belong to Me,” the second single from her first post-Nick Lachey album, A Public Affair, wants to proclaim freedom, but ends up both looking and sounding false…

VIDEO: "I Belong to Me" by Jessica Simpson

If you understand the title, “I Belong to Me” you’ve already deciphered 90 percent of the meaning of the entire song. Jessica Simpson goes through a couple verses of clever metaphors reiterating the way in which human beings should not lose themselves in each other (“I’m one, not half of two”), but instead retain their unique identity throughout. It’s a simple and positive sentiment for a fairly simple and positive song.

The video begins with Jessica lying in her bed, seductively waking up in a room resembling a warehouse. There are marked boxes and packages scattered about to give the impression that Ms. Simpson has just moved into this fabulous place, or is about to move out, following a bad break-up. A box labeled “bedroom” is clearly made visible for this reason, and also to reinforce the pain of waking up alone in bed after so many years of waking up embraced.

What follows is supposed to be a visual representation of a mental breakdown that will ultimately lead to cathartic release and an overcoming. The video does succeed in convincing us that up until perhaps the final frame, Simpson doesn’t really believe what she’s singing – as evidenced by her anger and pain. She tearfully cries “my heart is my possession” but obviously still wants to give it to someone. Like last years brilliant “Since You’ve Been Gone" (the song is brilliant, not so much the video), it plays with the ironic nature of having to proclaim your freedom from the person you are free of, in order to feel free. Finally after she gets it all out, she feels good, and the final shot is the beginnings of a smile.

Yet from the very first frames of Simpson’s bad acting, there is something off about this video. Theoretically the idea of a rejection of make-up and superficial representations of self-worth should be very dramatic and moving. But it’s somewhat disingenuous to assume the viewer can relate to Jessica Simpson, easily one of the most sought after women in America, feeling un-pretty after being bombarded with those establishing shots of her sexy body strewn across white sheets and standing against a sunlit window. Yes she does go crazy but she still looks gorgeous in the end and is meant to. Simply cutting of your hair (which she probably didn’t actually do) isn’t enough to convince the audience that you have suffered pain, especially if the pain you feel is primarily associated with questioning your outer appearance, which has been visibly shown to still be attractively intact (a move that might have something to do with increasing the popularity of the video as well). She wants us to pity her, but doesn’t do enough to accomplish that, and in any case, pity is never as effective/affective as empathy.

Christina Aguilera’s video for “Beautiful,” which may be just as cheesy, is nonetheless more effective in accomplishing a similar type of sentiment because it depicts more realistic moments of pain. Furthermore, it’s not really an attempt to get us to pity Xtina, but more about a cultural obsession and problem with outer appearance as self-worth. We empathize with the characters in the video because they are shown suffering and recovering in familiar spaces, without first being sexualized.

But Simpson’s song contains the potential for a truly powerful video, and one must applaud her for spreading positive ideas like “I don’t belong to anyone” and “you don’t have to change who you are” etc. Yet at the end of this traumatic experience, after wiping off the make-up and cutting off her hair, she is still Jessica Simpson. Not only is she still beautiful, but it’s a lot easier for her to declare her independence and sovereignty than the majority of her viewers. I’m not questioning whether or not Simpson actually felt pain, but when she puts that crown on her head in the bathroom, we can’t help but remember that she is in fact a former beauty queen and presently still a pop star. And if you take away all outside knowledge, which includes knowing about her “Newlywed” drama and eventual divorce from Nick Lachey, the video gives us no reason whatsoever to empathize with its’ main character other than the fact that she looks distraught and cuts her hair off.

I’d like to give Simpson the benefit of the doubt, and say this was a noble attempt at inspiring her fans and viewers to have more self-confidence (which it may accomplish at times). But we almost have to question whether or not Jessica Simpson is really ok with herself. Whether or not she accepts her own appearance and believes in her own value is hard to decipher when she makes something as self-pitying as this. That’s why this video is worth talking about, because self-pity is one step away from self-hate. And that’s a wide-spread serious issue that we all can and should try to understand and overcome- if for no other reason than to prevent videos like this from being made.

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Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie