POSTMODERN INFLUENCES IN A-HA’S FOREVER NOT YOURS VIDEO
Stefan D. Stefanov
The following text will argue that the 2002 Forever Not Yours music video by Grammy Award nominee and a 1980s popular band A-ha is an eloquent demonstration of the implementation of techniques and the expression of themes that are characteristic of or attributed to postmodern works. By employing various literary and filming devices, and discussing ideas and themes traditionally postmodern, the video provides a convenient and ‘portable’ example of study.
A-ha’s work carries an emblematic feeling of melancholy, which is, simultaneously oddly powerful and manages to stir a feeling of optimism; accompanied by an outspoken criticism of conventions, the bands musical output is elevating to levels above commercially produced pop-music. A-ha were a breakthrough in sound and vision with their very first hit, Take on Me (1985), which later brought them the Grammy nomination, the song’s well known and catchy synthesized riff a popular tune even nowadays, not rarely giving ample creative space for new artists and their remixes (thus participating in the postmodern condition of intertextuality). The innovative video was an amalgamation of rotoscope-style animation and live-action (constituting an attack on established notions of what a video is and is not). The Take on Me video was inspired by the animated film Commuter created by Michael Patterson, and the movie Altered States. It is among the most notable examples of fusion of film and cartoon, and borders science-fiction, while exploring the realms of consciousness.
The video studied in this paper is part of A-ha’s “modern” work - singles and albums the artists from Norway have released since their reappearance on stage in 1998, after nearly ten years of little or no productivity that had resulted in the band’s official dissolution.
Forever Not Yours’ prerelease was ironic in itself as the song’s message of the impossibility of love was first broadcast on Valentine’s Day 2002. The Forever Not Yours single brought admirers and critics a highly contemplative work of art where various fragments of popular culture and postmodern cliché coexist. Created by Norwegian director and producer Harald Zwart, the video is a melancholic dissection of society and social structures minutes before their annihilation by a calamity which purports to be a modern-day repetition of the Biblical Flood. Beyond the implied depiction of the Deluge, where some details of the original disaster are repeated, while, of course, some are distorted, the video displays a notable number of intertwining human stories that exploit some of society’s most acute problems.
The Forever Not Yours video depicts a ‘real’ episode of human history, situated in the very near future (or even present day), during which a modern-day version of the Biblical Flood afflicts the Earth. In the beginning of the video, a ship’s crew is shown helping pairs of various animals aboard, followed by persons of (alleged) world importance, among whom are the three members of the A-ha band. As the video progresses we are shown a number of other stories, interweaving with the main one, such as the love bond between the band’s lead singer and his girlfriend, who are forcefully separated as they attempt to board the Ark-Ship, or the story of humility and compassion that grows between two elderly persons, seemingly the guards at some (state) institution who are watching the event broadcasted on TV. While panic-ridden masses are attempting to board the Ark-Ship, VIPs climb aboard through a specially designated entrance that, in an ironical twist of events at the very end of the video proves to be the entrance to the ship’s work hall, where the same VIPs are forced to do most basic labour, such as cleaning toilets or washing dishes.
A number of themes are explored in the video. The question of authority is brought to the viewer’s attention as no explanation is offered about whose the authority to build an Ark-Ship and elect those who are to board it from the human species. This is further undermined by the notion of apparent arbitrariness when the Ark-Ship guards let the lyrical hero’s girlfriend pass but throw him out, while the two other members of the A-ha band successfully climb aboard.
The postmodernist worldview in the video is demonstrated by a seeming dismissal of Christian faith and morals, which constitutes a challenge of the meta-narrative of religious (Christian) salvation. The video presents us with an example of an unjustified authoritarian selection, characterized by disrespect for what is normally regarded as a truly respectable quality of human character. The humbled lyrical hero, who is overtaken by the sorrow he is singing about (ref. the song’s lyrics), is unwanted, while the proud and arrogant guitarist/keyboardist of the band, together with the band’s guitarist and main songwriter are let pass. This may be understood as depreciation of the qualities the Biblical text advises as necessarily valued and honoured, hence an implied attack on Christian values. We see further in the video that characters who have really come to profess these Christian qualities are mere observers of the arbitrary selectiveness of those to be offered salvation, and are left no choice other than hold hands in a melancholic patience while awaiting their own demise.
Authoritativeness undermined, as one traditionally postmodern theme, is enhanced by harsh irony to emphasize the view that the supposedly divine will behind the construction of the Ark-Ship and the selection criteria is but a power play of false truths. With the lyrical hero’s bitter realisation that the VIP entrance has nothing to do with VIP treatment, upon his managing to stow away into the Ark-Ship, where the proudest band member is shown cleaning a toilet, comes the parody of the status of being chosen. The story is indeed critical about stardom, but at the same time undermines its own criticism through the fact that the ‘punishment’ inflicted upon the ‘stars’ is an actual ‘pardon’ because they are, nevertheless, saved from drowning in the Flood.
The theme of love and its impossibility, which underlies the video story in the form the song’s lyrics and the lyrical hero’s separation with his loved one seen on the screen, under circumstances beyond his control, is responsible for the overwhelming melancholic spirit of the video track. This theme is present throughout most of A-ha’s work: “Forever Not Yoursis one of those songs that sums us up. Melancholy, and at the same time uplifting - soaring.”1 [sic.] The apparent discontinuity, however, between the theme of love and the video’s themes account for a postmodern perception of the coexistence of the two. Indeed, in the majority of videos shown on TV there hardly exists a stable connection between the song’s lyrics and video, but the impressions each create individually cannot be viewed autonomously.
The theme of conflict is depicted at two levels - the lower-classes - elite conflict (common people attack the Ark-Ship’s crew, who only admit the chosen representatives of the high-class) - and the implied tension that exists among band members. The latter is initially seen in the arrival of each of them separately, and their different behaviour while boarding (or trying to board) the vessel, but is finally revealed at the end of the video, when the lyrical hero discovers the truth about the VIP welcome and premises, during the eye-contact made. This sub-level conflict is, of course, a fact that we learn from the ‘real history’ of the band, which has fallen apart after its success in the 1980s, then had a difficult reunion for its first comeback album, and a continued conflict spanning their subsequent work. “The recognition [of the Lifelines album] was hard-earned: the album was another difficult one for the band to make, and there were often tensions over each person's contribution.”2
The theme of humility, as opposed to the pride of the VIP characters, is elaborated in the scenes where two elderly people, probably security guards at the place where the Ark-Ship is, are shown first watching news reports on their TV of the impending calamity, and then quietly accepting their fate, compassionate of each other, as the broadcast signal is lost. As a counterpoint to humility, arguably redeeming the low-classes by placing the elite in their shoes, is the theme of humiliation that is depicted in the final scenes of the video. Ironically, the band members are ordered into doing cleaning work for the ship’s crew (while it initially appears that the crew is there to serve the VIPs).
The Forever Not Yours video interrogates systems such as (divine) authority, the religious salvation and the pop-cultural ‘happy-end’ meta-narratives; it undermines them, exposing the ‘unjustness’ in the selection criteria applied to the ‘saved’ and, ‘traditionally’ for a postmodern approach, offers no answer, no salvation, no solution. Although the grand scheme which is responsible for the arbitrariness and injustice is exposed, no viable substitute for it, or escape from it is suggested (unlike the Take on Me video, where the lyrical heroes manage to evade their enemies by switching from ‘reality’ to the parallel ‘cartoon reality’).
Perhaps wrongly seen as belonging to the master-narratives of nowadays, yet one that is continuously ‘preached’ by many works of literature and film, thus establishing it as a widely recognized theme, is that of love-as-a-saviour. In the Forever Not Yours video, this narrative is, somewhat traditionally for A-ha’s more recent production, attacked and negated. Love does not save the lyrical hero, nor does it save the elderly humbled couple, nor anyone else.
The above manage to instill a feeling of melancholy - there being no salvation, no chance of getting away - and of nostalgia - for both the earlier and more optimistic work of the band, and for the now hardly seen true belief in love (in contrast to the 1980s and even the 1990s when music and video contained the promise of true love existing).
Several of postmodernism’s common techniques are employed in the development of the story depicted in the Forever Not Yours video. Without intending to list and examine these in anything more than a rough chronology of their succession of implementation in the currently discussed work, and without an attempt at judging their weight against each other, the first of literary and artistic devices observed in the video is temporal distortion. While seeing a vague resemblance of the Sydney Opera in disrepair, suggestive of a somewhat near future, in the opening scenes of the video, the first appearance of the ‘lyrical hero’ some half minute later is in a 1930s model car, which later proves to be the kind of motor vehicles used throughout the fictitious setting of the video. The mingling of styles is made apparent by details such as clothing articles - that of the characters shown as the VIPs is modern-day fashion, while the apparel of the ‘masses’ is plain and could easily be related to any period of time between 1940 and 1970s - or a 14” TV set which can be dated to the mid 1990s; the architecture of the surrounding urban setting is obviously dated to the 1980-1990s. The VIP figures shown in the video are currently popular personae, contemporaries to the video’s year of release, 2002.
Relating to the temporal ambiguity of the time setting of the video story is the impossibility to define where the action takes place; certain details make locational ambiguity, although not necessarily viewed as a postmodern approach, perceptible. While the massive architectural edifice in which the Ark-Ship is found creates the superficial impression of resemblance to the Sydney Opera, the low apartment buildings in its immediate vicinity destroy this impression. The blistered paint of the “Vivimos Patria” writing on one of its walls suggests Spanish or, having made reference to the actual filming location of the video, Cuban setting. This impression is, however, subverted or at least questioned, by the VIP figures shown boarding the vessel - while pop stars such as Lenny Kravitz and Madonna are not necessarily in too great contrast with the location, the appearance of Queen Elizabeth II and South African religious leader D. Tutu is clearly peculiar. The performing band’s members being from Norway, as well as some of the animal discerned may be seen as additionally intensifying the locational ambiguity of the setting.
Faction is another one of techniques used in the video - the incorporation of actual living personalities comes to reinforce the ‘salvation of those important’ notion that is central to the storyline. Among the faceless masses, the keen observer will notice famous faces (or, at least, their stunts) entering the Ark-Ship, who come from different areas of life, including the aforementioned Desmond Tutu3, Lenny Kravitz, Queen Elizabeth II, Madonna, the A-ha members etc. Precious works of art - ancient Greek sculptures and the Mona Lisa painting - accompany the selection of animal and human species that are taken aboard in the opening scenes of the video.
The Ark-Ship, the pairs of animals, and the Deluge that ensues towards the middle of Forever Not Yours, are all suggestive of intertextuality or historiographic metafiction or both. Intertextuality, because the underlying plotline, that of the Biblical Flood taking place in modern times establishes a direct link to the Bible as a literary text, and also because we have no way of knowing who the VIP personae are (and if they are VIP at all) unless we are already familiar with the texts (in books, films, magazines etc.) that establish them as such.
Historical metafiction - the video fictionalizes upon actual historical events (to the extent, of course, one accepts the Bible as an authoritative text and the Flood a historical event), and upon actual (historical) figures. The latter count includes the performing band’s members acting as themselves, but in an imagined version of reality where they are among the most important people in the world.
Pastiche is another artistic device being employed in the video - a blend of elements, themes and stories has been used by the video director to achieve his vision - notably the story of the Flood and the Ark. Director Harald Zwart’s representation of the Ark is an elaboration of an existing model (Noah’s Ark 2008), where the wood work has been replaced by metal, but the similarity between the two models is far greater than that to any other (artistic or church) version of it.
Parody is also present - first, by using stunt figures to play the parts of the VIPs and second, in showing mock versions of ancient sculptures (one is probably David) and of the Mona Lisa (a closer inspection on the part of the view reveals the Mona Lisa has moustaches).
The video also employs the multiple narrators technique, there being two different lines of representation of the event depicted. The first narrator is the omniscient, the video director’s, view that portrays the events accompanying the moments of time before the Ark-Ship’s embarking on its journey. Although not shown directly through his eyes, the lyrical hero’s narrative appears to be detached from the omniscient director’s view, most notably as he manages to stow away aboard the Ark-Ship and looks at the drowning world seconds before the gate is sealed and then when he sees the other two band members already engaged in doing the cleaning work.
The song’s title, Forever Not Yours, establishes a relationship with existing texts dealing with the theme of love, including songs and books, usually love stories. The ‘forever yours’ inscription, a traditional message on Valentine’s Day cards is recanted and denied by A-ha’s song, which, as mentioned earlier, was initially released on St. Valentine’s Day.
The ‘forever not yours’ statement of the song’s lyrics is only reinforced by the video’s closing scene. As the world draws near to its end, drowned by the rain of the Deluge, and the lyrical hero is separated from his loved one, suffering the humiliation of his mock-VIP statute, we are left uninformed as to the future of anyone onboard of the rescue vessel, the Ark-Ship. We are deprived even from the distant hope of deliverance/salvation (of those deserving) - because a misanthrope and cynical interpretation of what follows could include a future where the (divine) authority orchestrating this modern-day Flood ‘saves’ all the species and the VIPs for its own entertainment, lacking any noble purpose.
And while Forever Not Yours did not enjoy the popularity of some of the band’s other videos, and failed to be nominated for the MTV ‘Best Post-Modern Video’ awards4, the themes it explores, the manner in which it does so, and the sentiments it stirs, in a strictly personal and postmodernly biased selection it certainly qualifies for the ‘My Favorites’ chart list.
1. Morten Harket, band lead singer and lyrical hero in the video discussed, commenting on the song/video. [back]
2. Quoted from the Official Community of A-ha website - A-ha (2010). [back]
3. South African cleric and activist who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid and the second South African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. [back]
4. MTV gave a ‘Best Post-Modern Video’ award in 1989 and 1990, the two winners being R.E.M.’s Orange Crush, and Sinead O'Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. The category was renamed “Best Alternative Video” on the following year. [back]
A-ha 2010: The Official Website of a-ha <http://a-ha.com/discography/albums/lifelines> (11.12.2010).
Noah’s Ark 2008: Noah’s Ark Replica Schagen Netherlands <http://www.pbase.com/paulthedane/noahs_ark> (11.12.2010).
© Stefan D. Stefanov