Friday, August 28, 2015

Cameo Culture: Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" Video and Relentless Celebrity Cameos

On the eve of this Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards, and given the recent "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" episode that focused on the ceremony's Best Cinematography nominees, now seems like an appropriate time for me to get something off my chest. Taylor Swift's video for the Kendrick Lamar-featuring remix of "Bad Blood" is up for seven awards, including Video of the Year, and seems like a safe bet to walk away with most of those prizes.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm a huge Taylor Swift fan. She's progressively gotten better with each successive album, each one representing another step away from the country-pop sound of her early years and toward full-blown pop stardom. Her latest, 1989, made the great leap forward, and it landed at the top of my personal top 10 list last year. She also just seems like a great person, judging by her Instagram account and Twitter feed. Love her or hate her, she's evolved into one of the biggest, and perhaps most important, pop stars of this decade.

I preface with all of this because the "Bad Blood" video is awful. For all the hype that lead up to it (and it was heavily hyped by Swift and her team), it ends up being a disappointing mismatch of sci-fi and action tropes, with a cavalry of celebrity cameos - each given a character name via onscreen text - coming and going before Swift engages in an (offscreen) battle royale with Selena Gomez and her army. It's more an ode to the depths of Swift's Hollywood connections than anything else.

And that's precisely the problem. The video is essentially a microcosm of a trend that's been swallowing up pop culture as a whole: the endless parade of celebrity cameos that ultimately amounts to nothing.

More after the jump.

Now, the celebrity cameo is nothing new in film and television. Having a famous face show up, either playing themselves or a minor character, has always been a reliable trope, giving the audience a chance to revel in this person's surprise appearance. Movies like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Airport were essentially built on piling one celebrity cameo atop another, either for comedic or dramatic effect. Part of the spectacle of these films - especially the Airport films of the 1970s - was seeing just who would show up over the film's running time. And a number of comedies have thrived on the surprise appearance of a celebrity, especially if that celebrity is not particularly well-known for comedy (think Mike Tyson in The Hangover) or is simply an inspired choice (like Neil Patrick Harris in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle).

The Star Wars: Episode VII cast gathers

But in recent years, the overload of celebrity cameos has become overwhelming. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the more notorious offenders in this department, casting strong actors in roles so minor that it leaves you wondering why they were involved at all. Take Glenn Close and Benicio Del Toro in Guardians of the Galaxy, for example. Though the film itself was a ripping adventure, the roles that Close and Del Toro occupied were so minor that they hardly merited their talents (Close, especially, was basically asked to bark a few orders and look nervous; that's far beneath an actress of her caliber). Similarly, Avengers: Age of Ultron wasted Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Linda Cardellini, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Julie Delpy, and Thomas Kretschmann, all of which could have been doing other great work elsewhere. And just take a look at the cast list for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII: there's no way the film is going to give ample screentime to everyone in a cast that includes Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita N'yongo, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, and so many more. At least a few of those roles are going to end up being glorified cameos.

(It should be noted that big-studio franchises aren't the only films guilty of this. David O. Russell's tilt-a-whirl ensembles in films like American Hustle leave some actors off to the side, while any number of large-ensemble independent films seem to overload their casts with actors who ultimately show up for a scene or two.)

The problem with this is that it not only wastes the talents of the established actors taking on the roles, but prevents up-and-coming actors from having a shot at mainstream recognition. Don't think that I don't understand why these actors are taking these roles: it's an easy paycheck in a near-guaranteed hit, and being a part of the franchise machine means a steady income while pursuing projects that truly interest them. But at the same, getting swallowed by a franchise system that's becoming increasingly interconnected - no franchise exists without its own "universe" now - means less time for those passion projects, with commitments to multiple films being part of the job. How excellent would it be, then, for some relatively-unknown actor, looking for their first big break after a few small credits here and there, to land a plumb role in the next Captain America or Jurassic Park film? It would bring fresh blood to the mainstream, and give audiences the opportunity to be truly surprised: instead of "hey, it's so-and-so!" the exclamation becomes "wow, who was that?" Instead of wasting star talents, these films have the power to create new stars.

To bring it back to the "Bad Blood" video, the video is essentially this problem diluted down to its purest state. Over the course of three minutes, Swift, Lamar, Gomez, Lena Dunham, Hailee Steinfeld, Serayah, Gigi Hadid, Ellie Goulding, Martha Hunt, Cara Delvingne, Zendaya, Hayley Williams, Lily Aldridge, Karlie Kloss, Jessica Alba, Mariska Hargitay, Ellen Pompeo, and Cindy Crawford all appear and are given character names, only to disappear just as quickly. None of it means anything more than a brief moment of excitement for Swift's fans: there's probably some degree of overlap between her fans and the fans of each of those people, and the chance of recognition is the only purpose for their appearance. It's an endless parade of famous faces for the sake of having the parade.

(Swift's recent world tour has continued this trend: scroll through her Instagram account and you'd think that every living performer in the world has appeared onstage with her, with the guests ranging from Beck and St. Vincent to Fetty Wap to the United States Women's National Soccer Team.)

None of this is to say that celebrity cameos in movies, television, or even music videos is inherently bad. But when great actors are given minuscule roles for no reason other than to have a famous face plugged into the work, it takes away both from the actor and the audience. Give the established actors a chance to truly work, and give the next generation a shot at showing their stuff instead.

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