art news & reviews & Interviews. jeff bergman, editor

72nd – Pharrell vs Jay-Z


Pharrell vs Jay-Z, or 24 Hours of Happy vs Picasso Baby

Please allow me to take a detour and tell you the reasons why Pharrell is a more interesting and relevant artist than Jay-Z.  I realize it shouldn’t be an either/or proposition, yet from the massive scale of production of these two projects I am about to discuss, I couldn’t see it any other way.  You may be saying “Now, how is this about art?”  I’ll get there, I think.

Last year Jay-Z hosted an art star-studded event that became Picasso Baby, the HBO special.  It is a music video in which the artist (Jay-Z the artist lest you be confused) is shown speaking to or lecturing an assortment of art world luminaries, critics and oh yeah, artists.  Why these people were there is still beyond me.  In reality, it was 8 hours of Jay-Z lip syncing to seated guests who sometimes chose to dance with him.  I am still confused why it exists.  The track isn’t terribly good, which is weird considering that Jay-Z usually crafts incredibly catchy or vibrant songs.  I am by no means an expert on popular music, Hip-Hop or otherwise, but we can all tell a 99 Problems from a Picasso Baby.  The video is a testament to starfucking at its best.  The art world showed up because Jay-Z is the reigning King of music and it turns out he collects art (the Brooklyn Nets stadium has some!).  Who wouldn’t want a very public one on one video moment with Mr. Beyonce.  (Marina Abramovic I’m talking at you)

Pharrell Williams is another story.  He is a very popular guy now-a-days because of the various hit projects he produced this year (and the awards he’s received subsequently) and his own hit: Happy, from the soundtrack to Despicable Me.  This is pop music at its most quintessential.  Hell, it’s for a big budget animated movie.  Pharrell has made his share of Art Basel Miami appearances, notably this year’s collaboration with Takashi Murakami.  He has been involved in various arty projects for years but many months back (yeah, I am way behind) he launched a 24 hour video for Happy.  It is the song, in 4 minute single-shot segments all over LA throughout a 24 hour day.  Pharrell does the first segment of each hour starting off in a new place each time.  The subsequent 14 performances in the hour belong to other people in or around that same location.  Each performer only got the one take, though I imagine Pharrell might have bent the rule for himself (11PM, the bowling alley).   Still, almost all of the moments after the first first Pharrell segment feel live and alive, one time events.

Pharrell’s song itself takes cues from Motown (Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson are the singers best associated with his sound) while updating it with exuberant gospel voices and infinite hand claps.  After a while, the music is just the reason for the abstraction of moving bodies and moving scenery.  Longo’s well dressed black and white dancers in the 80’s became iPhone’s neon pop colored shadows (with white earbuds) in the 2000’s.  These Happy people are the live action, long play reality at the intersection of pop music, dance and celebrity.  It’s destined to be a favorite for live sporting events, commercials (I think i have seen 2 already) and wedding aisle dance entrances.   Many people have already paid homage to the video, and the love of a single place it exemplifies, around the globe.

I don’t know if Pharrell has seen Christian Marclay’s The Clock, or Picasso Baby for that matter, but I will assume he knows what they are.  His 24 hour video is a blend of nearly everything available in the popular art culture right now but still feels genuine.  At one point in the video (the 1pm segment at 49:48),  Tyler, the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt and Jasper Dolphin do their version of an opening segment from What’s Happening Now including a three way high five.  As they cross a huge intersection and do a few more moves a man runs through an otherwise peopleless landscape unaware of the video being filmed.  He really did that, he needed to get somewhere with such urgency that he missed the small video production crew in his peripheral vision and hauled ass across a busy intersection with determination.

Why this matters at all I am not sure.  In reading about Robert Irwin this month, I am thinking about the idea of public spaces, especially the sun drenched spaces in LA.  Happy makes me feel closer to them.  Pharrell gives LA a love letter, and his minions fill that letter with beauty and exuberance.  Is it art? Sure.  Why wouldn’t a video like this be worthy of the same Zwirner gallery that hosted Stan Douglas?   Or MoMA’s atrium?

I would rather spend moments with Pharrell’s grand improvisation than Jay-Z’s art world name-drop orgy.  And you know what, the song isn’t half bad.

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