I am going to try to keep this one brief. Let’s see how I do.
Before I go any further I think it bears mentioning that a combination of my increasing age and the increasing speed at which the pop culture moment passes (especially in music) means that the song/video I am writing about here, “Turn Down For What” is already old news. But that’s okay, if the few stragglers who still haven’t heard this song or watched the video do so now because they read this, and/or the folks who have seen/heard and uncritically loved it or dismissed it out of hand give it another chance now that the fervor is dying down, I’ll feel like I have done a good thing.
While I have been kind of obsessed with this song since a good friend of mine turned me on to it a few weeks ago (the same friend I talk about some in this old Sounding Out! post), it was a conversation about the video on Twitter with Jacob Canfield, a cartoonist and sometimes contributor for The Hooded Utilitarian., that inspired this post. It began with his tweet:
To which I replied that I thought it was one of the best videos of all-time (in fact, despite Kanye’s protests, I’d say it is much better than Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” which watching a couple of years after his controversial move I found to be a snooze-fest).
It is basically impossible to discuss the song without the video, but I do want to say that the song itself is a banger. The kind of song that if I heard it on the dance floor as I was flagging later in the night, would reinvigorate me. It is the kind of straightforward energizing song that drives the listener to keep moving, to refuse to give up, that in its simple repeated phrase “Turn down for what” challenges the idea of responsibilities and social concerns. Its crescendos invite the listener to rise above each percussive plateau of electronic beat, or perhaps as the video depicts, to sink below, deeper into some kind of primal and dangerous place we all want to go.
The video captures the menace in that kind of energy and power and conflates it with scary sexuality. This is both the video’s problem and success. Canfield isn’t wrong when he calls the first woman’s obvious distress and silent screaming (dancer/actress Sunita Mani) when faced with this pelvic thrusting destructive intruder who cannot seem to control himself disturbing. The man himself appears simultaneously distraught and ecstatic. The paradox of sexuality—its dangers and pleasures, its ability to both violate and call participants to acquiesce to it—serves as the central metaphor for the power of this music. The way the first woman fights against the intruder by throwing first a vase of flowers, then some kind of box, and finally smashing him in the junk with a baseball bat moves beyond the potential darkness of the scene into the realm of the absurd—finally she beats him at his own game, smashing him in the face with her ample ass and crashing them down to the next scene. As one of the co-directors, Daniel Kwan, suggests in an interview with Vice (he is also the first dancer), in creating the video they were trying to take the idea of male obsession with their own virility to its absurd extreme, but then have it explode in a way that all the characters, male and female, can express this virulent and combative sexual energy through dance. The mother’s punching breasts are the perfect example of that kind of absurdity.
When I first watched the video, I too felt that the imagery suggests that the woman “learns to like it” and as such reinforces a dangerous attitude towards sexual assault and rape. And I haven’t lost that discomfort with the scene. However, I do feel that it is somewhat mitigated by the indiscriminate humping that goes on throughout the apartment. The dancing intruder humps a picture frame, the coffee table, the television. The effect of the music is scary, but infectious. The song and video are transgressive.
What I really love about the video, however, is the look of it and the people in it. As I said on Twitter, it feels to me like a building I might have lived in as a kid in Brooklyn. There is a “realness” to the people in each consecutive apartment. It is their participation in this unexpected building party (in both senses of the word building) that makes me as a viewer feel like a part of it. Rather than “othering” these people, I feel like these are my people. These brown folks are the center of the action. I could be dancing at that party. Aside from the police man, I never noticed that there were any white people in this video, and once it was pointed out to me, it still didn’t matter. They are ancillary to the central action and the party does not exist for their enjoyment through mockery. The video does not exist for me in terms of a white gaze. I largely forget about white people when I watch it, just like I forget about them when I am in the heat of the moment dancing (one of the few times in my life where that can actually happen).
In the end, I hear Lil John’s question, “Turn Down For What” as a challenge to the white gaze and respectability politics. It is a big “We don’t give a fuck!” to the haters and supremacists who are going to judge us no matter what we do, so we might as well keep it turnt up. You can party if you wanna, too… but don’t think you get to determine the standards by which we express ourselves. The video crashes down and through the visual hierarchy of the building. It upsets the domestic space of the family. It challenges us with its aggressive eroticism (the daughter’s hand suggestively cupping the mother’s pulsing breast). Even the police can’t stop it. It may seem a stretch to talk about the song in the some breath as what is going on in Ferguson, MO right now, but when I see the righteous anger of black people in their community, the chanting and horn honking and clapping and fireworks, and even the failed Molotov cocktails, I imagine it as a different kind of “turnt up” that can’t be turned down—at least not until the hierarchies of race in America are smashed through.
I understand Jacob Canfield’s concerns, but while audience reception is important, I like the song as a big fuck you to those who would see it and think that the fact that there’s an Asian guy getting down is the joke, or make fun of the bodies of the Indian or Latina woman, just like the song itself seems like a big fuck you to the idea that a song needs to be more than a visceral pounding dance hit to have a political meaning.