Narration in music videos: The two different stories of Justin Timberlake´s What goes around, comes around

So I guess it´s about time I write a post for this blog that actually reflects the title of it. On the curriculum for Norwegian in Norway, multimodal text analysis is a part, to some degree, on all levels, and particularly in high school I´ve found that music video analysis is a grateful task.

For that purpose, I have more than once successfully used Justin Timberlake´s “What goes around, comes around”. It was directed by Sam Bayer and released in February 2007, and has an interesting narrating structure. It´s a 9 minute long mini-movie and even stars Scarlett Johansson as the love interest of the character that Justin Timberlake plays in the video.

The music video is an adaptation of the song into a movie. Unlike other adaptations, typically from novel to movie, this kind of adaptation isn´t generally presumed to be an independent work – it´s supposed to support the song and the artist´s image and to help to sell more records. But what kind of message does this music video really send? I will argue that the video seemingly embellishes the story of the lyrics, but that really it tells us two different stories.

The song´s lyrics is about a girl and a boy. The boy thought that they had a real thing going, and was prepared to marry this girl, “I was ready to give you my name”, but he found out that she cheated on him. Now he´s heard that she is lonely, as the new guy she did the cheating with, now is cheating on her. The boy, though, doesn´t have any sympathy for her now, hence the title “what goes around, comes around”, and even “girl, you got what you deserved”. I can´t find any signals in the lyrics that doesn´t align with this message, and so I think that is the implied author´s message for the lyrics alone.

So far, this is all well, and understandable. That which is somewhat problematic, arises if you apply this authorial intention on top of the video, because in the video, the girl is seemingly killed in a car crash, and how many would ethically agree that someone who cheats, deserves to die? And why, even, would that help Justin Timberlake´s image as an artist? Bad boy, yes, but to what degree? Let´s look into the story of the movie a little closer.

The movie is about a boy, played by Justin, who meets a girl, played by Scarlett, whom he falls in love with. The movie has several scenes without music which paints us a more complicated story than what the lyrics tell us. It gives us the story and build-up that explains why the girl cheats on Justin´s character. He is seemingly very jealous and asks his buddy to keep an eye on her. He acts like he owns her, and that she should be grateful that he is even considering to marry her, as shown in this dialog, while friends are present:

He: She might even get the keys to the castle

She : I don’t want your keys

He: Shut up!

In the scene when he discovers that she is cheating on him with the same buddy he told to watch her for him, he gets upset and violent. He beats up his buddy and holds her face in a violent grip. First she is seemingly submissive, and regretful that she wronged him this way, but when he doesn´t fold back, she breaks away and says “you don´t fucking own me”. The reply is crucial as he says “I fucking own you”.

The story of the movie thus becomes a different story than that of the lyrics alone. In the movie story, the character played by Justin is flawed. His hamartia is that he doesn´t appreciate what he´s got – acting like you own a person is not very sympathetic, and he loses his girlfriend´s love because of it.

The message of the movie story is thus not that the girl got what she deserved. It is is the boy who pays for it. His hamartia in general and his wild car chase after her directly, causes her death, and the boy has to live with that guilt for the rest of his life. What goes around, comes around.

So how then does the lyrics part where the girl is lonely because the new guy is cheating on her – it is sung, but not shown in the movie story – fit in? It would have to happen after the night of the crash when she dies, which naturally is impossible. In fact, there is one very important element to the music video that I haven´t mentioned yet. It is the fact that alongside the movie´s story there are scenes where Justin is on stage singing the song, seemingly in the club where some of the movie story scenes take place.

At a first glance, one would think he is singing the song in character as the same boy in the story of the movie. But I argue that he isn´t. Right before the crash, the singer goes “girl, you got what you deserved”, but when the character played by Justin comes and finds her dead after the crash, that line is not the subtitle of his face, at all, it is more what I already mentioned, a face of guilt and regret.

I think that we are dealing with two very similar stories told simultaneously. The singer in the video is an autodiegetic narrator (i.e. the narrator is the same as the main character of the story) of the story of the lyrics, while the movie story has a heterodiegetic narrator with internal focalization (i.e. the narrator isn´t a character in the story, but senses things from within the head of at least one of the characters in the story). It is a very intricate distinction, because without the two markers mentioned in the lyrics that doesn´t align with what happens in the movie story, there wouldn´t be any basis for interpreting that there are two different narrators.  The implicit author uses each story to highlight the different sides to the song´s theme, which is what goes around, comes around. In the lyrics the girl pays for her mistakes, while in the movie story, the boy pays for his mistake, and the video gains suspense from the ethical dilemma it poses, by almost making it seem like there is only one story here.

And Justin Timberlake gets to show himself off as a bad boy, but runs clear, ethically. Well, there is a lot more one could say about this music video, but I´ll stop there for now, and would be very interested to get input on both using music videos in classrooms and the interpretation of this one in particular.

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Filed under education, literature, music video, narratology, Uncategorized

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