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Seven Weddings and a Funeral

By Ben Kessler

“I didn’t tell the whole truth, no one tells the whole truth...”
-Robert Durst


If not the best pop film so far this year, Maroon 5’s “Sugar” music video is surely one of the most significant. I think Andy Warhol would’ve given props to director David Dobkin and the band—not just for “Sugar”’s popularity (358 million YouTube views as of this writing) but also for how this video reveals, even as it exploits, the needs of a new pop audience.

Following on from Dobkin’s feature film Wedding Crashers (2005), “Sugar” purports to record a real-life quick-fire series of surprise Maroon 5 performances at Los Angeles wedding receptions, trailing the band as they cut furrows of “WTF” shock and delight through seven separate and diverse gatherings. But the documentary pretense is little more than a patina; trick shots and conspicuously “entertaining” wedding guests (dancing Asians, for example, have become a reliable visual gag in contemporary music videos), among many other touches, are not-so-subtle signs of artifice. In fact, just days after the video premiered, bloggers were pointing out that several of “Sugar”’s awestruck faces belonged to professional performers—including a “bride” identified as an unmarried America’s Next Top Model alum. The broad consensus, for those who care, is that five of the seven weddings shown appear to have been staged.

Which begs the question: Are viewers who enjoy the “Sugar” video extremely naïve, or extremely sophisticated? But it’s a question impossible to answer, since the answer “both” clearly doesn’t make sense. The video itself is undoubtedly sophisticated: an adroitly edited mélange—okay, “mashup”—of viral stunt, documentary, performance film, and musical narrative, flitting between these radically different modes as fast as Final Cut Pro will allow. It’s a con that outsmarts itself, thus fooling no one. But in true Warholian style, this self-betraying con may be the most seductive kind of all.

“Sugar”’s secret weapon is its pacing, each onset of the catchy chorus—and perhaps no earworm has burrowed this deep since Katy Perry’s “Firework”—coinciding with a drop of the curtain revealing Maroon 5 doing their thing at yet another wedding, and the entire crowd immediately going nuts. The fragmented state of pop culture today makes this sort of unanimous reaction quite unlikely in the real world, but the pleasure of the video comes from watching the band evoke an inversion in the social atmosphere that is as smooth and inevitable as a well-executed chord change. Of course, the suspension of one’s disbelief in order to receive this pleasure entails the instant acceptance of the video’s main premise: Maroon 5 are such magical people that even on the most important day of your life, they are still more important than you.

And yet I confess I’m not immune to Dobkin and frontman Adam Levine’s charms here, which may have something to do with the religious heritage I share with them. I detect a certain residual resemblance between “Sugar”’s repeated curtain drops and the opening of the Ark to reveal the Torah during shul, at which the whole congregation rises to acknowledge the entrance of the Divine. Likening Pop to Religion is tired, I know; so I’ll be more specific and posit that “Sugar” is a sort of remake, from a Jewish perspective, of Catholic Brian De Palma’s 1984 “Dancing in the Dark” video for Bruce Springsteen. Bruce pulling ingénue Courteney Cox up out of the crowd to dance on stage with him finds a contemporary equivalent in Levine hopping down from the stage to embrace the newlyweds, real and sham alike, at the end of the “Sugar” video.

Levine’s questionable gesture of humility reflects how pop culture has changed since the 1980s. After all, his success stems as much from playing himself, as a judge on the reality competition show The Voice, as from playing with Maroon 5. The impossibility of assimilating person, artist and brand into a coherent whole necessitates an equally impossible aesthetic. Dormant forces must be marshaled and mashed up: “Sugar”’s style conflates oral with visual culture, such that viewers accept its blatant fakeries as so many embellishments in a folktale.

So add to all the contradictions mentioned above one final chin-scratcher: This video is both entirely of its time and entirely nostalgic. One bridging sequence shows a carful of girls pulling up beside the Levinemobile and stopping for a few selfies with the band, but the mid-traffic party is promptly dispersed by LAPD sirens. The girls, representing today’s Instagram audience, want and receive only the evanescent. At wedding after wedding, Maroon 5 promise to restore endurance to ritual: the substance that lingers from pop’s pre-internet highpoints. And the crowd exults. Of course, “Sugar” includes no gay weddings; for gays, one assumes, no popstar is needed to lend importance to a ritual that opened itself to receive them so recently.

Were the weddings real? Does anyone believe that pornstars love each other?


According to the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, “nearly everyone” has followed the HBO docu-series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, directed by Andrew Jarecki. In fact, this true-crime drama about an alleged serial murderer garnered nothing like Maroon 5 numbers: The initial airing of its sensational finale averaged well under one million viewers. Gopnik’s exaggeration was characteristic of HBO’s camp followers in the bourgeois media, who are accustomed to inflating the audience for their favorite “quality” programs like protest organizers misrepresenting turnout.

The Jinx’s finale, as much as the “Sugar” video, pandered to the cynical naivete, the “smart” gullibility, of its core demographic. Presenting a genuinely maddening tale of the one-percenter and real-estate heir Robert Durst, who skirted punishment for at least three (probably more—Google him) killings, Jarecki seemed to jab at the same vein of ressentiment that fed David Fincher’s much-lauded film Zodiac (2007). In that movie, a sense of bourgeois entitlement and class hatred were given repulsively opportunistic vent in Jake Gyllenhaal’s nerd-vigilante protagonist. “I need to stand there, I need to look him in the eye and I need to know that it’s him,” Gyllenhaal says of the working-class prime suspect in the Zodiac Killer case. He gets his wish in Fincher’s penultimate scene, a sneering stare-down that appears to be all the justice this director believes in.

When Jarecki uncovers a piece of bombshell evidence seemingly tying Durst to one of the murders, he exposes his own lack of belief in justice by not putting it in the hands of police immediately. Instead, he hatches plans to entrap Durst by springing it on him in an interview. In doing so, he wrenches his narrative off-track: It never becomes clear why Durst, after repeatedly refusing to be interviewed a second time, eventually consents to be taped without his lawyer present (not the case in the first interview). The signs of artifice are as glaring here as in the Maroon 5 video.

The series concludes with a blood-chilling free-associative rant Durst delivered on a hot mic from inside the bathroom at Jarecki’s studio (or so the director claims). Gopnik compares it to a Shakespeare soliloquy. But no one who has read journalistic accounts of the Durst case over the years—the suggestive biographical information largely missing from The Jinx—could be completely surprised by the revelation of his psychopathy. Like Maroon 5 excising gays from the “Sugar” video, Jarecki blanches at the Leopold-and-Loeb essence of Durst’s life story. Taking cues from Jarecki, most reviewers of The Jinx isolated as the pivotal utterance in Durst’s speech, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” But the enormity of his evil is better suggested elsewhere. “You’re right, of course,” Durst says (to an internalized inquisitor? To the audience Jarecki commands?). “But you can’t imagine.”

Ben Kessler can be reached at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh.

From May, 2015

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