Diane Martel’s Eternal Teenage Party
have you seen mileys new video
get thee to a screen
This is the gchat conversation I had with my sister after the first time I watched the video for “We Can’t Stop”—the video that broke Vevo before naked Miley swung back in on a “Wrecking Ball” to shatter the record again. “We Can’t Stop” is an amazing song. But it’s an even better music video. It has my number, and the director, Diane Martel, has the passwords for all my logins, the code to unlock my phone, and access to my HBOGo account.
Martel directed two of the years best/worst and most argued-about music videos—and to create not one but two videos that pretty much every has seen in a time when the medium has become irrelevant is impressive. She helmed both Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop.” The former is a misogynistic-or-isn’t-it parade of topless females being goofy in front of a white cyc, the latter is a suburban surrealist rager. The video was Miley’s not a girl, not yet a woman moment; it featured the tongue heard round the world and catapulted the track itself to “song of the summer” status. If Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” marked the summer like a spray tan, Miley’s song and video were a cigarette burn. This was the year “selfie” made its way into the dictionary and your mom learned the verb “to twerk.” For this, you have Diane Martel to thank.
Martel started out as a choreographer and has been a music video director for the last 20 years. I only learned her name in 2013, but we all likely knew her work well before this year. In 1993, with the “Dreamlover” video, she started her longtime collaboration with Mariah Carey. The video featured Mariah walking around in a field of dancing men, clad in loose pigtails and jean shorts. I was eight years old, and would soon play Mariah’s Fantasy album on repeat. In 1999 she pulled a double Aguilera, directing “Genie in a Bottle” and “What a Girl Wants,” and I went out and bought orange pants from Abercrombie Kids that looked just like Christina’s. Martel also directed two of my favorite videos featuring group choreography: Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You” in 2002, and Ciara’s “Like a Boy” in 2007. These came out during a time I was spending my weekend afternoons at Millenium Dance Complex, the studio where Wade Robson was a master teacher, where Britney Spears rehearsed for her music videos and tours, that sent the MTV Music Video awards all manner of backup dancers.
Diane Martel’s videos have coincided with important moments and obsessions from my musical experience for years. Even “We Can’t Stop,” which belongs squarely in 2013, reminds me of being a teenager in Los Angeles in the early aughts. In high school most of the parties we went to were pretty tame. But every so often, through someone’s camp friend, you’d end up at a Valley party like Cher in Clueless, and the feel was distinct and new: maybe it was the sense that the parents who lived at the house frequently weren’t home, that this party may not have a start or end to it, that someone could get hurt because people were a little more ragged and druggy. This is the party in “We Can’t Stop.” Miley, like Cher and Tai, is rolling with her homies. She’s just being Miley on Molly.
“We Can’t Stop” is also an update of one of my all-time favorite music videos. They have a lot of the same moments and themes: camera flashes, druggy aftermaths, shirtless men and various teenagers scattered around, faceless teens swimming in a pool. I think of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” of course. I’m not sure how conscious of a choice this was by Martel, but given that she and the director of that video, Mark Romanek, both came up in the medium’s heyday, I would bet money that she watched it while storyboarding “We Can’t Stop.” Both videos take place in a suburban home with green shag carpeting and vertical wood paneling; “Criminal” begins with a shot of Fiona taking a picture with a camera, and then a weird giant stuffed animal, the ancestor of Miley’s teddy bears.
Fiona and Miley could be at the same party. Heroin downstairs, cocaine upstairs. But as Martel has explicitly said, Miley’s video is a “giant selfie.” This is how she wants the world to see her: dancing, partying, having a fun time. Martel has empowered her with the creative choice to fill her selfie with whatever insanity and absurdity she chooses. Fiona’s video is also a photo, but one taken by an unnamed man—each frame set in lighting that has the effect of a non-stop camera flash. At one point, the camera takes on the POV of a man across from Fiona in a bathtub. In that video, Fiona definitely doesn’t have the level of control that Miley has, especially not with all that hiding in closets (which isn’t to say she isn’t enjoying writhing around).
If my teenage self had gone to the party where Fiona was, I would have called my mom to pick me up. If I’d been at Miley’s party, I would have stayed.
Celeste Ballard is a freelance writer for the The Hairpin and The New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs blog, and a producer at Above Average, the digital arm of Broadway Video. You can find her on Twitter @celesteballard.