why are there still so many guns in music videos?
2015 was the year that America's gun epidemic became impossible to ignore. Why was it was also the year musicians from Lana Del Rey to Taylor Swift decided to start wielding automatics?
In 2015, according to some estimates, there have been more mass shootings in America than days of the year.
To date, there have been 353 mass shootings in the U.S. since the year began (using the definition of "mass" to mean a shooting in which three or more people are wounded or killed). And even that statistic doesn't do justice to the wider destruction guns cause in this country: every year in the U.S. guns kill roughly 33,000 people, and despite growing demand for improved legislation, little is being done to curb America's gun problem.
So why are the biggest musical acts of 2015 - whose music we love, whose videos we watch many millions of times, who we Google and follow and retweet and revere - still producing music videos starring everything from handguns to heavy artillery?
Yesterday, MTV shared a preview for The Weeknd's new video for his single "In the Night." The trailer began with a bullet traveling, in slow motion, towards camera. A week after the shooting in San Bernardino, and a two days after the New York Times published a front-page op-ed on the gun crisis, a prolonged, 360-degree take of a moving bullet was hard to watch. Billboard wrote, "Judging by the 15 second teaser, it's all about the action, with hearty doses of blood, guns, and breathlessness."
Released last night, the full video is a six-minute montage of strippers, gangsters, floating dollar bills, a freaky-looking tropical fish, Abel Tesfaye and guns. At one point, the lead stripper, played by Bella Hadid, gets held up at gunpoint and later she fires a handgun of her own.
That guns are used to tell a story is one thing. That they're glamorized is another. The video, directed by BRTHR, has movie-level production values. It rolls like a slick, pulpy 80s action film. And like any 80s action flick, it fetishizes guns. The camera lingers over shiny gunmetal washed with red light, over bullets and, during the final standoff, over the mouth of the gun Bella Hadid fires to kill Tesfaye's underworld nemesis (who is also holding an automatic to his head). Guns are not only the weapons carried by the mobsters in suits, they're wielded by the video's beautiful, latex-clad heroine. The video is sexy and it tries to make guns look sexy, too - which, fuck knows, they're not.
And The Weeknd isn't the only offender. Taylor Swift - smart, feminist, sparkly-hotpant-loving Taylor Swift - and her squad roll with an entire arsenal of handheld weaponry in the video for "Bad Blood." Like Tesfaye's video, Swift's is styled like an action movie. It was promoted with a huge film poster campaign before its release, and has since racked up over 650 million views on YouTube. While Swift spoke about the video's message as one of female empowerment, it's hard to make out the feminism amidst all the explosions. Carrying a gun isn't empowering, it's an act of aggression.
Referring to Swift's video, Miley Cyrus told an interviewer in September, "I don't get the violence revenge thing. That's supposed to be a good example? And I'm a bad role model because I'm running around with my titties out? I'm not sure how titties are worse than guns."
There's also Lana Del Rey's video for "High by the Beach," in which she blasts a helicopter out of the sky with an assault weapon that's almost as tall as she is. It's received 35.5 million plays in the four months since August alone. Just because Lana is in a villa in Malibu, wearing a diaphanous turquoise kimono when she fires a rifle - not in khaki, in a warzone - it doesn't make the act less dangerous. If anything, the setting of Lana's moodily romantic Californian dream world normalizes and glamorizes gun violence. So much is said about the violence acted out in video games, but what about a music video that's free, easily accessible, and stars a musician idolized by moody teenagers worldwide?
In our current environment of constant, all-access media coverage, what musicians do and endorse has more serious and far-reaching consequences than ever. Today, Amy Schumer, Obama, and film industry names including Julianne Moore and Spike Lee, released a video encouraging people to speak out about gun violence and asking lawmakers to improve gun control legislation. If musicians aren't willing to leverage their power and exposure to help end the gun epidemic through initiatives like this, the least they can do is not add fuel to the flames.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Still from "Bad Blood" via YouTube