I do not got to a fancy gym. If my gym were an airline, it would be EasyJet. It costs £30 to check in your first bag for an EasyJet flight. Everything is virulently, vehemently orange. I assume management is going for "cheap and cheerful"; in my family, the airline is known as "SleazyJet". There is a website dedicated to customer venting of EasyJet rage, including a shared safe space of forums to tell your story. Like an online support group. One is not an EasyJet customer, one is an EasyJet survivor. But, the problem remains that we all go back, because EasyJet does enough - it gets us cheaply (sometimes suspiciously cheaply) out of our Fair Isles and off to sunny lands afar. And so it is with my gym, cheap as chips with loads of cardio machines and tons of free weights, seemingly open forever and providing fresh water from the taps in the loo. I am particularly fond of the fact that the taps are mismatched, at least in the ladies' bathroom. "What more do you want, people? We fixed the sodding tap, now you want it to match the others? Spoiled urban hipster types, jog on. You don't even know you were born."
Obviously, my gym does not pay for premium entertainment services in the facility. There are a couple of LCD screens in each room which show a mish-mash of ads, tube service updates, and music videos that are usually either a) minimally 7 years old; b) featuring nobody you've ever heard of before. So it was the other day, when I looked up from the elliptical (low impact cardio for the win!) and feasted my eyes on the video below, "Knock You Out" by Bingo Players.. No-frills music-tainment is sometimes most useful! You find stuff you'd never see before! As you're a captive audience until you finish your work-out, the mind tends to over analysis of the video imagery and tropes! Before I launch into the fruits of such over-analyses, I must offer a trigger warning: the video contains scenes of domestic violence, so please bear this in mind before you choose to view it.
What intrigued me about the video was how it upturned my expectations pretty effectively. At the beginning, we see a lone pretty waifish woman, sporting injuries to her face typical of a beating. She looks both deeply pensive, and - frankly - somewhat broken inside. I literally sighed out loud when I first saw the opening. Great, more woman-as-victim imagery. She just needs to listen to an upbeat empowerment electro song and she will reclaim her subjectivity and escape her violent partner! The woman passes some older men loitering by a doorway, and one in particular lasciviously eats an orange: the stage is set for creepy male objectification. Again, I sighed. But then: we see the woman without her facial injuries, in a changing room, with a serious "I've had e-fucking-nough" face filled with weary despair. A man with a red cap, out of focus, hovers in the margins of several shots. Remember him, he's important. Cutting again to the exterior, the woman shakes hands with Creepy-Orange-Man, and pow - evidence of her beating is back. Later in the video, though, it turns out this dude is not-super-creep. He is, in fact, a boxing trainer, and trains her in the ring so she develops her own pugilistic skills.
Distaste for and fear of the Creepy-Orange-Man is initially guided more or less explicitly by the video, and then an alternate perspective on him is provided. To me, this initial fear/suspicious response to him mirrors the standard operating procedure many women must take when inhabiting public spaces. Male violence against women is a fact of life in patriarchal society, and women must deal with this reality, often safeguarding themselves with practices and modes of behaviour to avoid becoming victimised. The safest course of action is to interpret Creepy-Orange-Man as, well, creepy. The reveal later in the video, though, that he is a somewhat paternal, supportive coach figure muddies the waters. The 2012-2013 Crime Survey for England and Wales reports that 45% of female murder victims in the UK are killed by their partners or ex-partners. That is to say: creepy male strangers are certainly not the only or primary threat to women's safety. Intimate partners can also be significantly dangerous, as the video demonstrates with the woman's abusive partner, revealed as Red-Cap-Man. So, does the viewer need to rethink their negative judgment of Creepy-Orange-Man, and focus our contempt on the woman's abusive partner? I don't think so. For me, the two characterisations of the man uncomfortably co-exist side by side: he is both creepy and potentially dangerous in the one instance, and then warm and supportive in the other. He is not a caricature of masculine evil, a black-and-white case of Abusive Man. Instead, we see his potential for taking up - and acting on - this abusive identity. And then we see his potential for behaving with compassion and respect towards a woman. The problem is in judging - accurately - which identity this man is inhabiting in a particular moment for the woman with whom he makes contact. This is a problem a woman may face in almost all environments, and in all areas of their life - not just out in public, but potentially at home too.
The interleaving of images of the woman with and without injuries continues throughout the video. It subverts linear narrative, and challenges the reader to unravel the woman's circumstances. What happened to her? What is her story? Are we seeing three periods of her life: 1) pre-beating (no injuries); 2) immediate aftermath of beating (injuries); 3) after injuries have healed, in next phase of her life? Or just 1) and 2)? Such interleaving also leads the viewer - or at least this viewer - down several different narrative alleys. For example, we see the woman (not injured) running on a treadmill, posters of boxing stars pasted all over her walls. So: the injuries on her face are from the ring, right? Her facial wounds are a sign of her reclamation of (female) power, not victimisation from a partner. Yet, no. Next, we see the woman (uninjured) fighting with Red-Cap-Man (the one hovering in the margins earlier), who is now revealed as her abusive partner. His vicious beating is inter-cut with images of her training in the boxing ring, where Creepy-Orange-Man is shown as a supportive and encouraging figure. She strides out of the gym to meet a long-haired man, Jason, who carries her bag for her - a sign of his respect for her, and general nice-ness. As the pair walk down the street, she pointedly stares at Red-Cap-Man who looms hazily in the right of the shot. He fades away: he is a specter of her psyche, one who she defeats by assuming her own power both in the ring and out of it. With this final image of Red-Cap-Man, we can perhaps re-read his appearances earlier on in the video: abusive partners do not just inflict visible wounds with beatings, but colonise the internal landscape of those whom they terrorise, becoming ever-present ghostly figures of control and oppression in the women's lives. Emotional abuse is a component of domestic violence, and is equally damaging. (For an excellent accessible overview of domestic violence patterns, see the first chapter of Harne and Radford's 2008 Tackling Domestic Violence, available as a .pdf here.) Ultimately, the video does not provide the viewer with an easy-to-grasp and coherent conclusion. Yes, the long-haired Jason is shown to be thoughtful and nice, but...so what? If Creepy-Orange-Man could turn into Supportive-Coach, what's to say that Jason doesn't end up as another abusive partner? The fact that the woman can now box? Hmmm. Why does her "happy ending" have to feature another romantic partner? Can't she just be kick-ass and strong in her own right?
Looking at the circumstances of the song's creation does not offer up any definitive reading of the song either. Bingo Players are a Dutch electro house / dance DJ outfit, going since 2006, and with a bona fide #1 UK single in 2012 with "Get Up (Rattle)" (feat. Far East Movement). The band started out as a two piece, with Maarten Hoogstraten and Paul Bäumer collaborating on tracks. After Bäumer died from cancer in 2013, Hoogstraten decided to keep going with the project solo, a proposition Bäumer actively advocated prior to his death . I mention this not to inject some tragedy rubbernecking into this post, but because Hoogstraten himself characterises "Knock You Down" as a song which conveys his own struggle with grief:
“It’s all about overcoming struggles and emotional challenges, it really reflects [where I am] right now,” he says. “When I play it, it’s spot on. I could write those lyrics myself.”
It was the last song the pair worked on together, and operates in some ways as a means for Hoogstraten to preserve an emotional link with his dear friend, particularly through witnessing the fan's enthusiastic reaction to the track the duo crafted together. Hoogstraten is clear that the lyrics to "Knock You Out" can "be interpreted in many ways". Indeed, the music press lights on the song's lyrics as a metaphor for Bäumer's struggle with cancer (see, e.g. this article in Dance Music Northwest).
The track's success is arguably due to this plethora of possible interpretations offered in the allusive lyrics. They speak elliptically to a kind of personal empowerment and triumph against adversity that listeners can apply to almost any situation(s):
My fight is won / Who needs a gun / Boom boom knock you out / You knocked me down / But who's laughing now / Boom boom knock you out / [...] /
You pick on the weak / Your twisted tongue speaks / All the fears you hide / The fear inside / You think I don't see / You're not talking to me / I'm the mirror, the knife / The fear inside /
But I get stronger everyday / One wrong will be all it takes / My power's fed by your hate / One wrong will be all it takes / [...] /
And the bully's best friend / Is the poison pen / But you can't touch me / While you sit at home / Plan attacks all alone / You try to phase me / [...]
The lyrics were penned by a woman, Australian singer-songwriter Sia. Produced in advance of the rest of the track, they formed the kernel around which Bingo Players created the soundscape. The song's power is at least in part due to the great vocal performance of female singer Kim Viera, who is not credited overtly (i.e. in the official artist slot) and does not feature in the video. I'm not sure what to make of all this. It feels as if there is both female erasure and over-emphasis going on here. The male DJ behind the song, under whose moniker it officially circulates, views the track as offering a generalist empowerment message, and for him speaks to grieving over the loss of a male friend. The song's video directly spotlights violence against women, but the track-as-media-artefact renders Sia and Kim Viera basically invisible. Sure, Sia is credited on liner notes and receives royalties for the song - but the average radio listener or YouTube viewer does not know that. Same again for Kim Viera. Why the choice to depict gendered violence? Did Bingo Players consult with Sia on this choice? Does the video then reflect her intended lyrical thrust? Is it conscious-raising for some viewers - an important move to show the horrific realities that many women experience? Or does it slimily trade in such intimate violence, using it as a quasi-titillating hook to attract attention? I am undecided personally. It is an imperfect narrative, as all narratives are wont to be. The woman overcomes her abuser and stakes out her own claim to power through boxing. But why should she have to take up boxing in order to do this? Why does she have to find another - nicer - man to partner up with at the end? Why does her trainer have to be a previously-creepy-dude, and not, say another woman with no baggage attached? All these questions and more remain unanswered.