House of Mirrors

Sasha Geffen on Willow and Olivia Rodrigo

Still from Willow’s 2021 video Transparent Soul, directed by Child and Dana Trippe.

IN THE FIRST OF TWO VIDEOS for her song “Transparent Soul,” Willow thrashes in a featureless white room flooded bluntly with light. The song’s lyrics are full of barbs launched at a disappointing “you,” but Willow is alone in this visual capsule. She sings into and kicks at the fish-eye lens set on the ground, then backs herself into a corner of the claustrophobic box, whose walls have suddenly sprouted security cameras. She aims one at the viewer, threatening us with a reciprocal gaze. 

The low vantage and ultrawide-angle lens draw a clean line back to the ’90s, when director Hype Williams used both techniques abundantly in a string of music videos that would crystallize the era’s look. Artists like Busta Rhymes, Missy Elliott, and TLC mutated in the warped view of Williams’s camera, their features ballooning as they leaned into the lens. Certain videos, such as Missy’s “She’s a Bitch,” from 1999, deployed the fish-eye not for comic purposes but to create a surreal sense of scale: The setting shrinks away, while Missy, in a gleaming cyberpunk getup, fills the frame, goddesslike. The technique also makes the lens and the camera manifest as perceivable entities, calling attention to the way the domed glass scoops and focuses light. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Stanley Kubrick portrays supercomputer HAL’s point of view, he uses a fish-eye lens. The surveilling eye sees differently, sucks in more information than its human counterparts’ easy interpersonal perception. 

Still from Missy Elliot’s 1999 video She’s a Bitch, directed by Hype Williams.

Willow wrote “Transparent Soul” in lockdown, while a great deal of social interaction was being mediated by cameras and the networks that connect them, so it’s no surprise that its visual treatment would have a heightened awareness of itself as video: not a portal into a dreamworld, but a set of pixels delivered via a self-surveilling algorithm. “Transparent Soul” follows in a long tradition of music videos preoccupied with the reflexive image, from Flock of Seagulls’ 1982 “I Ran (So Far Away)” and its dizzying hall of mirrors to 1980’s “Private Life,” in which Grace Jones removes a mask of her own face. Williams’s virtuosic run of videos furthered this fascination, setting artists against dazzling reflective surfaces in strange, recursive landscapes. In the 1998 video for “Love Like This,” Faith Evans, wearing a mirrored suit, dances inside a mirror ball with a smaller mirror ball dangling from its ceiling. In Busta Rhymes’s video with Janet Jackson for “What’s It Gonna Be?!,” released a year later, the rapper materializes out of CGI mercury. The tiled walls liquefy and bloom with toy soldiers also formed from the same shining substance.

“Transparent Soul,” while furthering that inquiry into the persona of its star, also plays in a pop-punk idiom propelled by the presence of Travis Barker from Blink-182 on drums. In its earliest iterations, pop punk entertained many of the same questions of image and source Willow touches on here. On their 1978 album Germfree Adolescents, the British punk band X-Ray Spex considered the possibility of an authentic existence in the age of mass media, scrutinizing the ways punks and squares alike piece themselves together from the scraps of television, movies, and other formats. “I know I’m artificial / But don’t put the blame on me / I was reared with appliances / In a consumer society,” sings Poly Styrene on “Art-I-Ficial.” On “Identity,” she ask,: “Do you see yourself on the TV screen? / Do you see yourself in the magazine?"

The more punk went pop, the more it sought to differentiate itself from its chartmates. As formerly marginal groups like Blink-182 and Green Day began sharing airwaves with more explicitly manufactured pop acts like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, they clung to an imagined authenticity for self-definition. Blink-182’s 2000 video for “All the Small Things” most clearly illustrates this schism: The three group members dress up like teen idols, gazing at the camera in mimicry of pop videos’ softened sexuality. In the shots where they’re not in genre drag, Blink-182 revert to the usual scrappy boyishness, hammering away on their guitars and drums, real again in their ruckus. Avril Lavigne’s 2002 songs “Complicated” and “Sk8er Boi” similarly positioned the young star as a girl realer than the rest. Paramore’s 2007 video for “Misery Business” shows Hayley Williams and her group competing in a battle of the bands while a girl in a teal dress stalks their high school, bullying everyone in her path. At the end of the video, Williams confronts the villain, yanking silicone inserts out of her bra and wiping off her vampy makeup in one swoop. Her image deflated, the more feminine girl starts crying while Williams, in her flame-orange scene hair, scampers off with the boys. 

In 2021, now that pop punk is one of several subgenres that the biggest stars in the US can don at will rather than an indication of a stable subcultural identity, videos for these songs don’t simulate conflict among different sects of unruly high-schoolers. They don’t declare one set authentic and another false. Instead, the Gen-Z versions stage the drama between the body and its image, following in the tradition of the pop, hip-hop, and R&B videos of the ’90s.

Still from Olivia Rodrigo’s 2021 video good 4 u, directed by Petra Collins.

With her third single and second no. 1 hit “good 4 u,” the year’s most rapidly ascending new pop star Olivia Rodrigo shifted from the twinkling, piano-driven tone of her breakaway debut, “drivers license,” into a coarser mode. With its drumrolls, yelped vocals, and crashes of electric guitar, “good 4 u” hews more closely to Avril Lavigne and Paramore—its chorus melody notably echoes “Misery Business”—than Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus, and the other Disney-TV stars turned pop phenoms with whom Rodrigo shares an origin story. (Before “drivers license,” she was a cast member on the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.) But in Petra Collins’s video for the song, Rodrigo doesn’t slip into pop punk to insist on her own authenticity despite her sudden ascent, instead staging a more complex dynamic.

“Good 4 u” is a breakup song from a breakup album, and yet its video shows almost no interaction between Rodrigo and anyone else. There is no boy at whom she can vent her sorrow. In “good 4 u,” Rodrigo’s foremost intimacy is with the cameras that surround her. Hinged smartphones reminiscent of early-aughts Razrs film her in the video’s first moments. She briefly practices a cheer routine with her squadmates, the only people she touches in the video, then heads to a convenience store, where she buys a can of gasoline and serenades the security camera’s lens, touching it with gloved hands in bitter flirtation. Finally, we see Rodrigo in her bedroom, which has been flooded with filthy water. She has set her curtains on fire, and her hair has come loose from its barrettes; she is unhinged, screaming. She then retreats from her home and wades into a nearby lake, where we see her eyes flash red, as if reflecting the RECORD light on a camcorder, just before she vanishes beneath the surface.

It is not so much the breaking of social bonds that troubles Rodrigo in the visual universe attending Sour, her debut album, but the suspension of her own image. Her fight is not with her boyfriend’s new girlfriend but with the pictures that once functioned as her armor and are now growing spikes on the inside, the vertigo from her ring light’s reflection, the curdling of her poise. Rodrigo’s reflexivity gives her struggle a certain privacy, as if her screams were not meant to reach an audience, only to break her out of her own infinite loop.

Still from Willow’s 2021 video Transparent Soul, directed by Child and Dana Trippe.

In the second video for “Transparent Soul,” Willow plays a loft party with her band, Barker behind her on drums. A fish-eye lens renders her face huge and the space small. After the set, she stumbles when she sees something in the crowd that shouldn’t be there, a featureless figure. She goes into the bathroom and collects herself in the mirror, and it follows. She leaves the party and walks home, the strange thing still behind her. It has mirrored skin, like one of the figures that take shape in the “What’s It Gonna Be?!” video, or Natalie Portman’s alien twin at the climax of Annihilation (2018). Willow falls, and the being approaches her, its voided face drawing close to hers. The camera enters her eye and is momentarily adrift in space. Then we’re back in the street, where Willow extends a trembling hand to her double, whose gleaming hand reaches back.