Sympathy for the O21 Idols: Sowelu’s “To You”

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

Around Thanksgiving, I was excited by the first Sowelu single I heard, and the PV with it. “Get Over” was a sexy, catchy song with a video that threatened to burn my retinas. I wanted to see and hear more, another great dance single, with Sowelu dancing in as suggestive and arousing a fashion as in “Get Over”. Instead, her next single was a ballad…

Except it isn’t that bad. Actually, I like “To You” as a song – not something I’m in the mood for very often, but not something that bores me immediately. Which is saying a lot, as far as ballads and me go. Unfortunately, the PV is a prime example of why certain “serious” O21 idols leave me cold most of the time.

This is a very mature, serious video – meant to be relaxing and comforting. Which in itself isn’t bad, but it relies on the iconography of Boring Adult Life which I detest even now in my impending-fatherhood mid-thirties.

You got the ocean washing up on a beach, a glass house, a string sextet… This could be a wine commercial, or an inspirational video about the real answer about the single set of footprints in the sand…

Part of it may be that my sense of profundity is so debased. I’ve never been fond of beautiful sunsets and the glory of nature or the reassuring harmonies of classical or pseudo-classical music. It all strikes me as less enticing and soul-stirring as really good feedback or the right set of slinky U15 dance steps.

As a result, I guess I sometimes detect a smug self-satisfaction when somebody seems to aggressively appreciate these finer things in life. I get a sense that I’m supposed to agree that these kinds of pleasures are more refined and more mature and thus superior to my own preferences for junk culture, noise, and willful perversity.

And I do sense a bit of that attitude in Sowelu in this PV. Perhaps it’s in her smile, in the way she’s dressed.

The fact that she’s dressed at all is something of a disappointment, I must admit. After her last PV, I wouldn’t have been surprised – or at all crestfallen – if all she wore was stiletto heels and those thin gold chains around the waist that porn stars sometimes wear when they fuck.

We don’t even get much of a view of her figure in this PV, never mind any writhing and shaking and twisting. Such dancing would’ve been discordant with the song, of course – if anything, this PV seems to invite standing still and reaching your arms out to the camera.

And then the PV starts in with another big cliche of mature idols…

Childhood photos! God spare me. I don’t like to look at photos of myself as a child, why would I want to look at anybody else’s? (That is, if you’re not a member of Berryz or SweetS. Those are the only exceptions. And Megumi and Maimi of C-Ute. But that’s definitely it.) I didn’t even like it in “Furusato” – but then, that’s one of my least favorite Morning Musume singles anyway.

Why this impulse to show oneself as a child? To pay tribute to how one grew up to be a fine, upstanding human being? To show off the atrocious fashions of past decades? To make one more sympathetic to the viewer?

Writing about this actually gets me more worked up than watching it, which I guess is because having to examine it makes me think about the basic assumptions in these media strategies.

For the most part, confronted with classical music and beautiful sunsets and the like, my senses just glaze over and I begin thinking about Shimizu Saki and giant balloons.

That said, some kind of scenario is emerging from the PV, at least.

Somebody’s leaving photos of Sowelu’s childhood on the seats of an abandoned seaside restaurant that’s intermittently haunted by a string section. Is it blackmail? Is it the return of dead loved ones? Is it a plot to drive Sowelu insane so someone can inherit the seaside restaurant that she’s left unattended? There! Now we’ve got a plot, and it can be played to maximum thriller effect!

But no, the evil possibilities remain unexplored. Instead, we next cut to Sowelu walking to the beach, all bundled up. (And with only one set of footprints! Where were you, Jesus?)

With the scarf around her head and the wan look on her face, it’s like she’s playing a recovering chemotherapy patient in some drama. Strictly Lifetime, not even straight to DVD.

The main actorly mood for Sowelu in this PV is “introspective” – a far cry from her actorly mood in “Get Over”, which was “horny but distant”.

Here, she seems to be inviting – none of that ice queen regality of “Get Over”, this is a song about bonding and warmth and stuff like that. But the invitation just doesn’t seem as compelling, if only because it doesn’t imply the use of handcuffs and trapeze swings.

The smile on Sowelu’s face is supposed to be beatific, I guess. “I’m an artist, I’m in touch with my feelings, I’m expressing my feelings in an aesthetically pleasing way.” But that all seems so… I dunno… overwrought? Self-satisfied? There we are with that word again.

Come on, Sowelu… you know you wanna straddle that chair… come on, just ride it a little…

Aggh! Another photo from her past! Shouldn’t she be horrified at these pictures suddenly appearing? I know I’d be. But I was an ugly kid, so that may be part of it.

Ah! A sexy shot of Sowelu at last! But only for a moment…

Here’s the motherlode of family photos. Don’t they have a shoebox or maybe a photo album to stick them in?

I’m being bitchy on purpose, so let me make up for it a little by saying that the ballad itself is quite pretty and beautifully sung. The production is pretty canned and perfunctory, swirling and beautiful in the way swirling beautiful things are expected to be, but it’s a decent vehicle for the singing. I can’t say that for most ballads I hear, but it helps that I was already partial to Sowelu as a singer.

Would it have won me over if I didn’t see “Get Over” before this? Um… probably not, to be honest. But that’s a matter of taste more than a comment on the song’s quality. Which doesn’t mean I hate ballads automatically – I just don’t prefer them. If I had to think of a ballad that I like a lot, X’s “Come Back To Me” from Under the Big Black Sun is the first to come to mind. Gritty and tragic, not putting on any airs but wearing its emotion on its sleeve instead of striking a pose. Similarly, I guess there are country ballads I like, including the Dixie Chicks’ “Without You” and Sara Evans’ “Four Thirty”. And does Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” count as a ballad?

In contrast, this song feels pretty but ultimately vacant. Part of it may be my inability to understand the lyrics, but I’d bet that there isn’t much of a story in the lyrics (as in the country songs I mentioned) nor is it autobiographical in nature (like the X song).

And thus, we have the attempts in the PV to make the song look as intimate and beautiful as it sounds, canned as it may be. Here’s Sowelu with what I assume is her family – whether it’s her mother and sister or her grandmother and mother, I can’t say. I’m guessing the first one and not the second. The one on the right is really cute, at any rate.

One of the problems of growing up – for me, at least – is that you want to be taken seriously and that often involves a set of values and aesthetics that just don’t appeal to me. I know objectively how they make sense – you know, here’s Sowelu in a lovely evening gown with the sun setting behind her. Fine. Now let’s see her grind with some tassels and I’ll be a happy boy.

At least I’m lucky enough to be of a generation where the decision to not grow up and not subscribe to these nebulous “mature” value systems has become more popular and even acceptable in a stupid, hipster way. Slacker may have been an idiotic generational title, but it at least expresses a resistance to established social norms that I can sympathize with.

All of which may be blowing this whole PV out of proportion: how do shots of Sowelu posing with a dog become a means of promoting conformity and dullness on its viewers? (Well, it encourages a hegemonic set of aesthetic values which in turn are used to reinforce the moral values behind them, in the same way Norman Rockwell came to embody both an artistic sensibility and a view of American life. But we won’t get into that.) Really, sometimes I read too much into everything.

None of which is to deny the beauty of the video, and certainly not of the song. I may just have issues with authority and trite aesthetic decisions. It may be a sign of immaturity that I crave novelty, excitement, and constant stimulation. I’ll cop to that, and that may be why I usually have problems with ballads such as this song and the videos that accompany them. A question of attention span trumping good taste.

Ahh, the hand reaching out to you. Another great video cliche meant to invoke a sense of intimacy and bonding.

I’m assuming this is Sowelu’s sisters and that’s the mother seated now? Or it can still be grandma and these are aunts and sisters. Who knows.

Well, I’m still liking Sowelu at any rate. Even with those horrid earrings. I’ll be keeping an eye and ear out for her next PV and hoping it’ll be more upbeat and racier. If not, I can at least hope it’s as well-handled a ballad as this one… even if it’s not my cup of tea, I can at least appreciate the talent in Sowelu’s performance.

But really, they could’ve re-cut this PV to have been a strange thriller involving blackmail and stolen family photos. The culprit would’ve been the cellist.

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3 Responses to “Sympathy for the O21 Idols: Sowelu’s “To You””
  1. Chuck says:

    Dammit, why couldn’t you have had this many caps of the other one?

  2. Chuck:

    I was thinking the same thing as I wrote this entry… Hopefully her next PV will be hot-centric. If not, we can always take a look back.

  3. gail says:

    Hmm…I dunno if you’ve watched this, but if you really want a sexy Sowelu PV, try checking out the video for “UH”, it’s one of the songs on her Heads or Tails album.