Friday, September 16, 2011

Person vs Persona: A-Ha, REM and Duran Duran

This was one of the videos that made people say, "I want my MTV."
The song’s title, Take On Me, needs only one word added for its true meaning to be understood by the listener:  Your Take On Me.
It’s the fundamental problem underlying all of our relationships, isn’t it?  The way you see me—only a sketch of my true self—instead of the way I really am; the way I see Rudolph Valentino (a Hollywood heart throb), instead of the way he really is (his insecurities, anxieties, hopes, needs and fears).  Like the artist at the drawing table, we sketch in the details of all the people in our lives, and leave a lot of blank space, and are treated the same by others in our own turn. A-Ha's 1985 hit Take On Me lyrically and visually sought to make us aware of what we do and how we do it; further, it sought to counter a very dangerous attitude and song released by another popular video just a year earlier, Duran Duran's Hungary Like the Wolf.
Actress Bunty Bailing was lead singer Morten Harket's real-life girlfriend at the time of the video. The still frame artfully illustrates how unbalanced relationships can be, with one part not contributing enough of their deeper self as the other.
Take On Me starts out with a race which is really in no way different than the great chariot race in the 1959 epic Ben-Hur: we are always racing against something, someone or ourselves, and sometimes, all three at once. What adds an important dimension are all the items which are backwards in the video: the milk sign in the diner window (it's backwards inside the diner and when we are outside the diner looking in), the numbers on the racers helmets (a backward "13"), the speedometer and the funnel that has "Fuel" written backwards: looking at everything in the video as a "mirror-image," we approach the race backwards and because we ourselves are backwards, we probably aren't running in the right direction. In Take On Me, the motorcycles replace the chariot, and the obvious industrialization of the motorcycles reminds us how we become like the machines we invent to do our work for us:
Why is this chariot race important? How does this relate to a pop rock band's love song?
Every action and decision we make, is a race: we are racing against our appetites, our ambitions, our morals and our values. The competition we race against? Culture, our demons, and others who want to bring us down. The race is easily won, some days, and easily lost on others, but the prize is our immortal soul, and why, after winning the race in the comic book, the lead singer is ready to "bring her into his world," because he won the race against what he was fighting.
Take on Me release single; side B was Love is Reason.
In the video, “the girl,” sits in a diner and has coffee; in art, a character eating/drinking relates that they are, or are not, "taking something in," making it a part of themselves by symbolically digesting it in meditation. She’s supposed to “eat up,” or take in what is about to happen, so it becomes a part of her and sustains her on the spiritual journey she’s about to take for the sake of their relationship.
She reads a comic book and that invokes the old saying, “I can read you like a book,” and this signifies the problems of most relationships:  you think you already know who they are, or what they are, and this is your take on them that doesn't go deeper than what you can "read" about them on the surface of their being, and this is the real definition of Persona, which is not just the "social mask" we all wear, but the help we give to others to keep that social mask a part of our being, and, the attitudes of others forcing us to keep the mask on, leading us further and further from our deepest selves that, at some point, will have to be rediscovered.
Album cover with Harket "half-drawn" like his persona in the video.
The most important scene in this video is his hand extending out from the book and her taking it. The hand is symbolic of strength, and that's why it's such an important gesture, it's his strength reaching out to her inviting her into his deepest vulnerability; and she accepts the invitation to cross the threshold of safety into his world where the real him can be found, and it might not be the part that attracted her to begin with. But here's the catch: the real her shows up in this "part comic" world because the mirror is two-way: when we help someone to reflect deeper upon themselves, we, too, are gaining wisdom from that experience, which shows the real us and what we are made of.
A-Ha in concert, Germany, 2005.
The second part of the refrain, “Take me on,” is quite literal:  your real you should take on the real me," because we can't go on in any other way if we don't. "Say after me, 'It's so much better to be safe than sorry,'" is a dare: if it's safer to leave me than for us to go deeper into ourselves, each other, and this relationship, I want to hear you say that and not just quietly pick up and leave. “I’ll be gone,” is nothing less than the ultimatum of the relationship:  if you don’t take me on, and get to know the real me, I will fade into nothingness and our relationship will be ended.
Lead singer Morten Harket in Cologne, 2005.
The waitress in the diner represents a part of the girl in a number of ways: a lot of women feel like they are “waiting on” their guy to grow up, reach the emotional depth in their relationship that she’s at, figure out what she’s been trying to say all this time, etc. Most importantly, the waitress thinks there is an unpaid bill and in anger throws away what was left, taking it to be trash.  How often do women—and let’s be honest—think that in the account book of the relationship he has left something “unpaid,” or the tally doesn’t add up? The waitress throwing the book in the trash represents their relationship and means that the girl is willing to “throw it all away” because she thinks he hasn’t paid his dues or sacrificed as much for the relationship as she has.
REM lead singer Michael Stipe in Glastonbury. Their hit song, Crush With Eyeliner is discussed below, but in this photo, Stipe graphically shows us how counter-productive a "social mask" can be: we think wearing one makes us more acceptable, but it really distorts us in very unattractive ways.
Her finding herself in the trashcan is an incredible symbol:  if she “trashes” him and their relationship, she’s trashed herself; we are (in our deepest being) only as good as we treat other people.  It’s only by smoothing things out between them, (represented by her returning home and smoothing out the pages of the book) that they will be able to stay together by overcoming their differences. But that’s not the only important symbol in this moment:  she’s gone home. A woman’s home expresses her true, inner self, just like the "comic book world of the race track" expresses where he is in his spiritual race. She knows he's in trouble because his "race" that he won in the beginning, has to be won all over again. But now, because of her and her help, the deeper relationship they have established, it's a different race. When he holds up the wrench, it symbolizes that he has the "tools" he needs to die to himself, that is, to let his own persona of himself ("ego" might be appropriate here if we are careful in how we use the word) so that he can be the man he wants to be and the man she needs him to be. What's imperative is, that wrench was being held by one of the racers in the beginning of the video, and whereas before she entered into him, the wrench was threatening and could be used against him, now, he's in control because he's not afraid to "have a wrench thrown into" their relationship, and that wrench is the sign of his individuation.
Monster, by REM, released 1994. Most music critics note the divergence in style from two previous albums the band made, but the lyrics seem to hold the greatest treasures: the battle from one song to the next of "how to invent myself," and let everyone else know that "I'm invented, too, yea." The social and individual consequences are deeply put "into play" in the videos for the album.
So, she’s gone into her deeper self and has smoothed out their relationship, now it’s his turn to do his part:  when he “enters” into her reality, he’s getting beat up… by nothing…? Where are the forces that are pounding on him, and causing her anguish while she’s watching it, and nearly destroying him?  That’s the question that every man needs to ask himself:  they are his ghosts, and they are certainly real, and his suffering is certainly real, and only by “passing through” can he get to the point that they both need each other to be at in order to be together (please see my post The Medusa Within: Clash of the Titans and Warrior: Competing Modes of Masculinity for more on "his demons").
The happy ending to the video is genuine:  they have both entered into their “takes on each other,” and survived the drama and pain of taking on the reality and have found each other on a deeper level, becoming one instead of occupying different worlds. It summarizes every relationship, achieving a degree of universality, while avoiding becoming a cliché.
Single cover for Crush With Eyeliner.There are only two "halves" of people here: the first half of a person is the girl looking off, and she's only "half" present because her eyes looking off refuses to acknowledge our presence, she is escaping us. The other person on the right side, literally half cut off, could be Stipe in drag for all we know, and that's why this cover "fits" the whole theme and mood of Monster: like the flashbulb catching its own reflection in the space between the two people above, we are highlighting something that can't be captured, the elusive persona.
Take on Me is an invitation to get to know "the real me" and "the real you," break the social masks and personas and accept the person beneath; but what if that invitation is denied? What if she didn't accept his hand and enter into his world? REM released hit album Monster in 1994 (nearly ten years after Take on Me) and, through a number of songs, battles out the social persona issue, especially in Crush With Eyeliner. In this video, pay special attention to the light (the harsh green light in the opening, the shadows and artificial light, because light is a symbol for truth), who is wearing what clothing items and really listen to these lyrics: the opening cord of the guitar will echo in the hollowness that exists in this song.
Why and how does this video "happen?"
The expression on the faces of the young people in the opening clips tells us everything: ennui. The French expression was fully explored in all its psychological shallowness by poet Charles Baudelaire and refers to an invented expression of one's inner boredom with existence and society, worn as an attitude to express social superiority and an alliance with the Decadent Movement in French art and literature. The ennui of the young people in Crush With Eyeliner contrasts sharply with the race in Take On Me, and the contrast is intentional, because when one is about their business, one doesn't have time for boredom, there is an inner-fight and struggle one has to win. Crush With Eyeliner details for listeners the gross defeat awaiting those who fail to engage in the spiritual battles.
Duran Duran's cover for Hungary Like the Wolf. REM also highlights the eyes in Crush With Eyeliner, since the eyes are the windows of the soul, looking into "blank eyes" shows us a blank soul, and the trauma caused by the social mask.
"You know me," is the great quandary which Stipe presents to us: you know the real me that wants to give "you" what "you" want "me" to be because "I" want "you" to "be" what "I" really want "myself" to be and by having "you", "I" become that persona that you possess because your persona is now the only "real" and stable identity in this conversation.  
The fake me eats the fake you. 
It's clear that REM presents a war of the social persona's to us in Monster, because of the social hostility of the hit song, What's the Frequency, Kenneth? and the total breakdown of communication that results when no one is able to communicate with "Kenneth." The features of a persona are translated in the video by the monochromatic lighting, the jerking motions of the camera and the way people are not "completely" within a camera frame, but are partially in and partially out (like the cover for Crush With Eyeliner above):

REM provides us with, not only the features of the social mask, but the victimization of both the wearer of the mask and those around the wearer because a mask presents an "un-leveled" playing field: one person's sincerity is turned against them while a persona intentionally dismisses the human needs of the other, creating a volatile cycle of self-destruction. (It's an absolute crime that I am not going line-by-line with REM's song and video, and maybe I can later like I did with Australian Apocalypse: Men At Work but this will have to do for now). 
Take On Me is really quite important, because just the year before, Duran Duran released their song Hungry Like the Wolf; (the video below isn't the MTV version released, that video is HERE; however, the lyrics are what's important, and the part about "I am on a hunt down after you," really underlines the dehumanizing nature of the video).
Now we know why Take on Me's girl being in the diner was an important feature of that video: Duran Duran emphasizes the difference between partaking of another person on a spiritual level, and devouring them on the sexual level. The social persona creates distance, between others and the inner self, and when so much distance is created, at some point, the inner self is just lost. The distance remains and the closeness of a relationship can never be achieved, hence, only the kind of predatory existence of Hungary Like the Wolf is possible, because when the persona becomes our reality, we lose our humanity and become animals, a wolf. The consequences of social personas are the dehumanization of everyone; it's one of the greatest social ills to diagnose and combat because of everyone's fear of exposure in the most vulnerable sense of the nightmare.
The "facial" paint emphasizes the reality of the social mask and how the mask becomes glued to our soul to the point we can no longer find what it was the mask was originally protecting.
What is the cure for the social ill of the persona? Sincerity, because when we are sincere, we risk everything, but we also gain in that we haven't grafted onto ourselves that "fake-ness" of insincerity, so by being sincere--we open our self up for the hostility of "Kenneth's" irony--but we prepare ourselves for the deepening relationships Take On Me illustrates, instead of finding ourselves being hunted down only to be devoured and left behind like trash.