Bits & Pieces — Rhythm Editing, Ariana Grande’s “Problem” and Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up”

Ariana Grande Problem lead

Thank You, Gene Kelly

How did ’50s musical star Gene Kelly play a part in launching David Fincher’s career? To explain that, we’ve got to rewind all the way back to 1989. Before Paula Abdul was a beloved reality show superstar, she was a singer and dancer.

Back then, David Fincher wasn’t an Oscar-winning director responsible for Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. He was a sought-after commercial and music video director who had worked with ’80s musical artists like Rick Springfield, Foreigner, and Gipsy Kings.

Neither Abdul nor Fincher needed the other, but they would each make the other’s career. Abdul got her start through a try-out for the Laker Girls, the L.A. Lakers’ cheerleading squad. She was quickly promoted as their head choreographer, shortly after which she was nabbed by the Jackson family to do their music video and tour choreography. Fans now think of her just as an 80s singer with a handful of hits, but Abdul’s history as a choreographer – especially with Michael and Janet Jackson – is often overlooked. She was one of the most important choreographers of the ’80s and ’90s.

Paula Abdul Straight Up

Abdul made a demo in 1987 and – on the strength of her dance ability at a time when music videos were king – her singing career kicked off. Her single “Straight Up” was a megahit in 1988, fourth on the year-end Billboard Hot 100. It hardly needed a music video to make it relevant. She had worked with Fincher that year, creating a solid – but largely ignored – video for “(It’s Just) The Way That You Love Me.”

Fincher made his money directing commercials. He had made a name for himself as an edgy, subversive director whose ads could stand on their own as half-minute films. Sometimes, they barely featured a brand’s name.

“I’m totally anti-commercialism,” Fincher said. “I would never do commercials where people hold the product by their head and tell you how great it is, I just wouldn’t do that stuff. It’s all about inference.”

Fincher had also co-founded Propaganda Films with, among others, Michael Bay. He knew at a time when MTV made or broke careers overnight that the quickest route into feature film directing was music videos. He’d been at it since 1985, he was solid, incredibly productive, and he had vision, but he had yet to break out as a music video director the way he had as a director of commercials.

Then came “Straight Up.”

Aside from featuring Arsenio Hall and introducing America to Djimon Hounsou, it became one of the most heavily played videos on MTV, winning four 1989 MTV Video Music Awards – Best Female Video, Best Dance Video, Best Choreography, and Best Editing. It’s often forgotten because it was overshadowed by a music video Fincher directed later that year – Madonna’s “Express Yourself” – and one that was released the next year – Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun.”

It’s worth noting the video that stuck the longest in people’s minds from 1989, however, was Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” directed by Mary Lambert and winner of MTV’s Viewer’s Choice award. Lambert had earlier in the decade earned notice working with choreographer Abdul on a handful of Janet Jackson’s music videos. The ’80s were a small world.

Paula Abdul had already spent years as one of the music industry’s go-to choreographers, and she had a major hit on her hands before filming with Fincher. Fincher was, perhaps, inevitable – a year later, he held three of the four nominations for best direction in MTV’s 1990 Video Music Awards (for Madonna’s “Vogue” and Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence,” in addition to the one for Aerosmith).

Yet Fincher’s first music video to truly catch the public’s attention was “Straight Up,” and the battlefield of MTV was littered with productive directors who never broke through. Paula Abdul was the route Fincher took in stepping up to major artists like Madonna and Aerosmith, and “Straight Up” was the music video that truly announced him, the connective tissue between one phase of his career and the next.

But before Paula Abdul was a reality show superstar, she was a singer, and before she was a singer, she was a choreographer, and before that – as she once told an interviewer – she was a little girl who had no idea she wanted to dance until she saw Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, and then it’s all she ever wanted to do. So thank you, Gene Kelly, I really liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Get to the Part About Ariana Grande Already!

Look at this. If you haven’t watched “Straight Up” yet, watch it after. (On certain browsers, you’ll have to click through to YouTube.)

Congratulations, you’ll now have that song cycling through your head for the next month.

Notice anything? The two music videos are incredibly similar, down to the cutting philosophy of isolating featured dancers. It’s not as if no one’s used these techniques between “Straight Up” and “Problem,” but few music videos have echoed “Straight Up” so proudly.

They’re both edited with what I think of as rhythm editing – this isn’t a term used very widely in editing – but I liken it to choreographies themselves. A rhythm choreography is something that’s based on the music. You cut to the hard beats. “Problem” is a superb example of this. From the moment Grande starts singing, nearly every cut is made to either two or four beats. As she crescendos and we approach the chorus “I got one less problem without you,” the editing reflects the increased intensity, suddenly cutting on every one or two beats. Later in the song, we’re cutting on half-beats, as well.

Ariana Grande Problem

How exactly does this reflect rhythm choreography? In many styles – jazz, tap, and hip hop – a rhythm choreography broadly means that the choreo is based on the musicality of a piece. Its inverse is lyrical choreography, which means the choreo is based on the meaning or story of a piece. They’re not mutually exclusive, but choreographers often prioritize one over the other based on the dance they want to create. As Dance Spirit described the difference between hip hop and lyrical hip hop, “hip-hop dancers hit the beat (one, two, stop). Lyrical hip-hop dancers ride through the beat while still accenting it (one, two-ooo).”

These are broad definitions. Hip hop, jazz, tap they each have countless style permutations, but for the purposes of understanding how a music video is edited, I think rhythm and lyrical editing fit very well. Rhythm values editing to the hard beat, reflecting the pace and intensity of the music itself. Lyrical editing prioritizes the story; you edit to the timing the narrative demands.

Ariana Grande pinwheel close

“Problem” wants a softer tone, but it still wants to be a rhythm-edited dance video, so it can’t use the severe overexposures and underexposures Fincher uses on “Straight Up.” Such severe contrasts are a dated effect anyway, evoking a style of glamor photography that is today more closely associated with commercial style – it’s the way we shoot iPads, Big Macs, and tractors now. Glamor photography in 2014 is far more informed by fashion photography, tabloid coverage, and theatre. “Problem” does reference Fincher’s black-and-white effects in Grande’s two-tone main set and pinwheel backdrop, while evolving it in the psychedelic tunnel effect of Azalea’s solos. (The pinwheel is used as a lighting effect in Grande’s separate lyric video for “Problem.”)

Iggy Azalea Problem

Grande (who, unlike some singers, is reportedly very involved in the editing process) and director Nev Todorovic also double down on Fincher’s film scratches, most notably at the edges of frame, while updating other imperfections to the digital era – those scratches are joined by digital artifacting (when pieces of information are dropped from the image, often in the form of visual static). A few faux-signal losses, like you might see on an old-fashioned TV, mimic edits as a way of simultaneously prolonging a single shot while maintaining the quicker pace of editing – your brain registers a cut, but the shot hasn’t changed. The psychedelic effect for Azalea further echoes the digital concept of constant screen refreshes.

Similarly, the dance styles are updated. The tap and isolation jazz in “Straight Up” – styles that typically require professional training – are replaced with styles more closely associated with street performance, like breakdancing and flexing (also called bone breaking). Abdul’s motorcycle is updated to some fancy Vespas.

Problem breaking

From a song standpoint, a couple of quick notes – I appreciate that the song “Problem” itself is about a woman cutting off a difficult relationship, rather than pining for one or trying to get the guy. Iggy Azalea’s line “I got 99 problems, but you won’t be one” is the conclusive rejection to Jay-Z’s infamous and oft-repeated “I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one” that I’ve been waiting 10 years to hear. The saxophone loop has seen credit given to Macklemore’s use of sax in songs like “Thrift Shop.” That’s fitting, but the sax loop in “Problem” has far more in common with the baseline electric guitar riff from C&C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now.”

As we understand the evolution of storytelling on film, it’s important to understand the evolution of music videos as well. It’s still the medium from which many of our future directors arise, and through which endless new editing, design, and cinematography techniques are forged.

As a viewer, “Problem” is even more enjoyable when I can recognize all the little details that come together to make it. Like “Straight Up,” it may be popular for a year before fading away, but the artistry behind it deserves better. Most will never give these music videos credit for being smart, nuanced, studied pieces of filmmaking. They’re bubble gum, and that makes it easy not to afford them their places in the history of the medium. It’s too bad. The technique behind “Problem” is masterful.

Ariana Grande pinwheel

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