- Against TeleologyNostalgia and the Vicissitudes of Connectedness in Pharrell Williams’s Music Video It Girl
On September 30, 2014, American superstar singer and producer Pharrell Williams dropped the official music video for “It Girl,” the fifth single and closing track of his studio album G I R L released earlier that year.1 After Williams’s participation in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines,” which triggered an outpouring of outrage for its blatantly misogynistic lyrics and music video, G I R L was hailed as a feminist comeback, “an audacious, almost-concept album celebrating women and aiming to highlight society’s gender imbalance.”2 Yet Williams’s redemption through newfound feminism was short-lived, as it became apparent that his good intentions did not have the desired results. Indeed, Williams’s tribute to womanhood is undermined by objectifying lyrics and not-so-emancipatory gender stereotypes, leaving critics to oscillate between cynicism and lamentation over a man with his heart in the right place but little understanding of the feminist movement.
Although the music videos for G I R L singles such as “Marilyn Monroe,” “Come Get It Bae,” or “Gust of Wind” feature women from different races and ages, they are all conventionally attractive and seemingly under forty, despite the ostentatious red text claiming that “BEAUTY HAS NO EXPIRATION DATE” at the beginning of “Come Get It Bae.” The mixed message is that Williams’ sexual appreciation of women—not the women themselves—is the protagonist in these songs and videos that depict groups of female dancers as props in bodycon outfits, performing raunchy poses and choreographies to a camera that tirelessly pans and fixates on their bodies. In “Come Get It Bae,” the women openly perform for Williams, as he either watches from a director’s chair, aided by a Panopticon-like set of giant mirrors surrounding the dancers from the sides, or films them himself, holding a hand camera while circulating around the women to capture their forms from various angles.
Against this backdrop, the music video for “It Girl” added insult to injury, as a disturbed Internet crowd discovered that, if beauty has no expiration [End Page 147] date, it apparently has no lower limit either. More than any other video from the album, It Girl elicited scandalous headlines with the repeated use of adjectives such as “creepy” and “pedophilic.” All because the video’s it-girl is no ordinary human, but a character out of Japanese animation that looks too young to be the target of Williams’s titillating verses (Figure 1). It Girl follows a blue-eyed blonde teenybopper called Yoshiっ(ch)!! and her group of girlfriends—Hatsume, Hiromi, Ponite, Honda, and Juri—as they enjoy day and night activities at a paradisiacal beach resort. The overall enthusiasm for the video’s spectacular anime- and videogame-inspired visuals was not enough to deter concerns over Williams’s flirtation with a jailbait character. As stated by one commentator, “With so much pedophilia on the Internet, it seems strange that one of the most popular artists in the world, Pharrell Williams, would embrace the theme.”3 Statements like this indicate that, while Williams’s song would ordinarily go unnoticed in any mid-afternoon MTV tale of male desire for beautiful women, the issue in It Girl goes well beyond the prevalent sexism in mainstream culture to acquire pathological contours.
There was also a great deal of confusion over the video’s aesthetic, with those unfamiliar with the subtleties of animanga imaginaries grabbing onto the closest identifiable reference they could find, like “Pokemon-inspired”4 and “Sailor Moon-like anime.”5 Although the roots of orientalism in Western music run deep, the use of “cool Japaneseness” by the Euro-American pop industry dates back to (at least) The Vapors’ 1980 single “Turning Japanese,” later reappropriated by Murakami Takashi in his 2009 video Akihabara Majokko Princess. The eclectic mix of nation branding ingredients exuding what Douglas McGray calls “the whiff of Japanese cool,”6 became more pervasive from the late 1990s throughout the 2000s, via pop groups and singers like Wamdue Project (“King of My Castle”), Daft Punk (Interstella 5555), Gwen Stefani (Harajuku Girls), t...