Sound And Vision: Miranda July

Contributing Writer; The Netherlands
Sound And Vision: Miranda July

In the article series Sound and Vision we take a look at music videos from notable directors. This week we look at several music videos for Sleater-Kinney, directed by Miranda July.

Miranda July has been called the epitome of quirk and twee to the extent of annoying. She has her detractors, who think her style of video art, performance art and filmmaking is insufferable. So much so that almost every big piece and interview on her, gives a lot of time to the people who don't like her, and the reasons why. I'm guilty of this myself, by starting the article this way, as I'm a fan and a defender. But there is a reason why, because Miranda July's music video, and connection to music in general, show a side to her that has been criminally underrepresented in talks about her oeuvre. Miranda July isn't twee, she is punk.

In the excellent documentary Turn It Around: The Story Of East-bay Punk, Iggy Pop narrates the story of punk in California's East Bay, and how the sound of that era was defined by one place in particular: the concert venue at 924 Gilman Street. A lot of performers in the East Bay punk sound had their break there, most notably Green Day. But who shows up, suddenly as a talking head, midway through the doc? Miranda July. She tells the story of how, when she was in her teens she put on a play called The Lifers in that venue. In other interviews July stated how she went to a preppy private high school, and punk was a way out of that pressure cooker environment.

Later she moved to Olympia, where she became a figurehead of the Olympia punk scene, where the riot grrrl scene was going on. She became heavily involved in the scene there, and it launched her art and performance career. In the shoddy documentary The Portland Girl Convention (see below), the sound and video quality is so bad that you can barely make out any of the performances. But it is a good time capsule of a place and time, where there are a lot of feminist punk performers adjacent to or included in the Olympia scene showing up. Miranda July does a piece, and who else shows up but Sleater-Kinney, just before they really hit it big.

It is here that we start talking about the music videos, as almost every video July participated in has a connection to Sleater-Kinney. July eventually even showed up in an episode of Portlandia, a series co-created by Sleater-Kinney-member Carrie Brownstein. Although she also acted in a Blonde Redhead video for her then-husband Mike Mills (see the earlier Sound and Vision about him), and provided narration for a Nicolas Godin music piece, she was not involved in the directing for either. The same goes for the music video for Sleater Kinney's recent Hell, in which July is just an actor. She is front and center in that music video, though, giving a life-time great performance where her emotion turns on a dime. She goes from laughing to demure in a split second, from aroused to almost shell-shocked. It is a masterclass in acting, where the joyful, ecstatic nature people seem to associate with July turns into something more volatile and dark. People who misinterpret or misrepresent films like Me and You and Everyone We Know and Kajillionaire, leave out a lof of scenes that are primed to make the audience uncomfortable. July's 'twee nature' is just a very thin layer, a facade, that breaks open to deeper grounds, exploring themes of sexuality and abuse, parental neglect, class difference, gender expectations and societal pressure. She's punk.

Something like her first music video for Sleater-Kinney's Get Up (below) is deliberately opaque narratively, hinting at themes of connection and societal change through supernatural means. But you can easily interpret the people looking up at the sky as cultish, or them walking hand in hand through the grasses as a way of finding and identifying a missing person. Is this a music video about alien visitors? About a kumbaya-cult? About dreaming? About progress and evolution? It's open to interpretation, and it can be equally read as calm and dreamlike, or as dark and sinister.

July is also really interested in the way people talk and connect through language, especially written and online language, which has shown up in many of her performance pieces. It was also front and center to Me, And You, And Everyone We Know. Her second music video, for Hurry On Home, the only other one she directed, is therefore not surprisingly more of a lyric video (finally below).

Its central premise is that we look at a cell phone, and the lyrics to the very dark, lusting, emotionally rousing song are typed out as messages from a person being cheated on by their lover. The responses from the spouses are disconnected from the content of the song, and seem to all but ignore the aggressively romantic yet poetic nature of the song lyrics. The song lyrics are, in a way, representing the subtext boiling over. What July wants to say, not what she is necessarily saying. Eventually we segue into other apps, and slightly humorous moments that mock the digital age we live in. July makes a small cameo, in her own quirky way.

Again, you could be forgiven for thinking it is a light, bubbly approach to a punk-rock, angry, heartbroken song. But with July the two go hand in hand, and always have. Like in Hell, laughter gives way to sadness, lust to anger. All the emotions are felt, all the layers are unpeeled. If you think July is just quirky, that's on you. You haven't peeled off enough layers, yet.

Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.

More about Sound and Vision

Around the Internet