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Why Originality Isn’t All That Important

In 2006, Fiona Apple enlisted Zach Galifianakis and director Michael Blieden to make a cheap video for her single “Not About Love.” (You can watch it at Vimeo.)

One year later, Blieden re-teamed with Galifianakis to repeat the same trick in a video for Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing“:

The Kanye West video is obviously derivative. I also think it’s better.

The original Fiona Apple video is very cute, and Galifianakis’s performance is endearing. (His raised eyebrows at some of Apple’s chewier lines are perhaps the best moments.) But the video also suffers from being pretty one-note. It’s mainly conceptual, and the concept is better than the execution. It exhausts its trick by the halfway mark, then gets repetitive, having nowhere to go. (It also suffers from not having much to do for its first 20 seconds, until the vocals start and we pan up to reveal Galifianakis, in the bed with Apple—which is, admittedly, a nice moment.)

The Kanye West video, by way of contrast, is, if anything, overstuffed. Galifianakis’s lip syncing is less technically impressive here (due to all the cuts), but the concept and his performance remain just about as funny as in the first one. (All that’s lacking, really, is the element of surprise—but we saw how far that got us the first time around.)

Meanwhile, the rural setting provides its own humor (the tractor bits are a pretty nice takedown of hip-hopdom’s car fetish), and for added value you’ve got Will Oldham (“how random!”) hovering in the background like some vengeful spirit. (He’s actually pretty frightening at times. Too bad Kelly Reichardt didn’t tap this side of him in Old Joy.) Add in an uncomfortable-looking farm girl dance troupe, reversed footage, ironic sweatsuits, cheap bling, psychedelic cows, and indelible markers (a harbinger of The Hangover Part II‘s facial tattoo?)…it’s all a little too much, really—but it never gets boring. (It’s a good thing Kanye West himself isn’t on hand.)

Mind you, I’m not dissing the Apple video. Rather, I’m trying to see it for what it is: a cute introduction to the Zach Galifianakis Lip-Syncing Concept (“ZGLSC”). One year later, by the time of the West video, we (and this “we” includes the director) understand the ZGLSC, so the video has to do something more with it than just present it. It must be less conceptual, and more performative.

Incidentally, even the Fiona Apple video wasn’t original. Both she and West were inspired by the same thing: a bit in Galifianakis’s routine where he lip-synced to Anita Baker:

Someone in West’s camp, though, knew enough to bring in Blieden the second time around. Which is a good thing, because he was probably thinking, “I need to top myself.”

Meanwhile, Hype Williams directed the “official” video for that Kanye West track:

It’s the weakest of the three—though it does make the Galifianakis video even funnier…

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

8 thoughts on “Why Originality Isn’t All That Important

  1. Fascinating. I’ve been contemplating originality lately, and your take on the evolutionary benefits of being derivative really undercuts several of my arguments for strict originality. Thank you!

    1. You’re welcome!

      I’ve been thinking about originality for a while now, and it seems to be that being original is often an impediment, because people tend to gravitate toward the familiar. Or, rather, they want something familiar that’s a little different… But the first thing people always ask you, when you mention some new movie or show or book etc., is, “What’s it like?”

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