And the Visual Element of Music
It is a well known notion that storytelling is an art form. While that may be so, I have a slightly different perspective on it. I consider storytelling not as a medium, but rather, quite unrestricted by any medium. By extension, it is not restricted to any art form as well. Instead, we can look at storytelling as a measure of the artistic value. In that sense, storytelling is indicative of quality of any art piece. You determine the value of an art-piece by seeing how vivid or beautiful or haunting stories it tells. And these stories need not be rooted in the thing itself. They can also be acquired. A clay pot made yesterday has hardly any value practically. And yet, an identical clay pot made three thousand years ago has an immense historical context attached to it, and hence it has a much higher value and much more revered position as an art-piece.
I have often heard criticism for music videos. The visuals are usually described as distracting from the actual story that the lyrics want to say. And generally, I agree with that. Music and the raw lyrics tell a story that is generalized enough to fit into everyone’s personal space without much difficulty. Visuals narrow the focus to one story. Sure, both tell stories, but one tells stories that resonate.
In that view, I think, The Lumineer’s The Ballad of Cleopatra comes as a refreshing surprise that shatters this viewpoint. The Ballad of Cleopatra consists of five songs that seem completely unrelated from each other musically and lyrically. Yet, when you watch their visuals, they become different parts of one narrative, that is, the story of Cleopatra.
The Ballad of Cleopatra starts with ‘Ophelia’. Ophelia can be considered as a prelude to the rest of the story. In the opening shot, you can see The Lumineers performing somewhere, when the lead singer Wesley Schultz breaks away from the ongoing narrative and detaches himself from his body. The rest of the video shows Wes as he goes on to the streets to dance and get wet in the rain. All the while, lyrics tell us about a mysterious girl named Ophelia that Wes cannot stop thinking about. But who is this Ophelia? And why can Wes not stop himself from thinking about Hamlet’s lover? I’ll come to that in a moment.
The story of Cleopatra can be seen as a story made up of three interwoven (four, depending on how you count) threads: the past, the present, and the future. Throughout the story, we see different parts of Cleopatra’s life. We begin with a fifty-five year old Cleopatra (the present) who drives a taxi. We then make a shift to the past, to a twenty-five year old Cleopatra in ‘Sleep on the Floor’, who has just lost her father. We move on to a thirty-five year old Cleopatra in ‘Angela’, who is now pregnant. And from, ‘Angela’ we trace Cleopatra to future, where a seventy-five year old version of herself is presented to us, lonely in a nursing home, wishing for nothing but death.
But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time
While the fifty-five year old Cleopatra detached from her body at the end of ‘Cleopatra’ to reveal that all she wants is to get back together with her ex-husband and live a normal family life, the twenty-five year old Cleopatra makes this choice very early in ‘Sleep on the Floor’. She detaches from her body and rushes out to follow her lover and both of them embark on an adventure through the states. When looked at it this way, the story of Cleopatra is a story of regrets. She did not run away with her lover to travel the states. She stayed. She did not leave her husband to spend a night away from everything basking in her freedom. She stayed. She did not go inside with her ex-husband to spend time with her family. She stayed outside. She did not get up from her wheelchair, walk bravely, and greet death like an old friend. She stayed.
And you can see her wishes becoming more and more normal with age. From wanting to travel the world and staying in love forever to wanting to spend a night of freedom to wanting to mend things with her family to just wanting to die. In fact, lyrics echo a very similar thing.
I was Cleopatra, I was taller than the rafters
But that’s all in the past now, gone with the wind
Now a nurse in a white shoes leads me back to my guestroom
It’s a bed and a bathroom, and a place for the end
She tells us that she was, in fact, Cleopatra, young and tall. And it tells us that when we are young we think of ourselves as different, we think of ourselves as better. We can succeed where others have failed. We are destined for something greater than ourselves. We feel that success is just around the corner, fame is just around the corner, we’re just looking at the wrong streets and the wrong corners. But as time goes by it also takes our dreams and ambitions and passions away from us. It makes us more meek and more generous.
But while the music and the visuals complement each other in telling us the story of Cleopatra, there is something more to The Ballad of Cleopatra. One of the central themes of the lyrics is the idea of freedom. It is echoed at multiple places, and in different forms. Whether it is in the form of the anticipation of freedom:
Leave a note on your bed, let your mother know you’re safe,
And by the time she wakes, we’ll have driven through the state
Or whether it is in the idea of freedom that you experience when you reach your destination:
Oh Angela, it’s a long time coming,
Oh Angela, spent your whole life running
And when we see Cleopatra driving a car on a lonely highway racing away from everything, there is an atmosphere of this freedom created by the visuals. And yet the lyrics echo something else. It is telling Cleopatra that she has spent her whole life running. But the visuals still show her running. And I think this is primarily where the visuals and the lyrics fork the story into two. We seem to think that lyrics and the visuals are complementary in telling a story, but what if they are not? What if they are telling us entirely different stories? What if the Cleopatra that we see in the visuals and the Cleopatra that is referenced in the lyrics are completely different persons?
We see a young Cleopatra and her lover brushing their teeth with fingers, while the lyrics scream at us, pack yourself a toothbrush, dear, we see lyrics telling the middle-aged Cleopatra that she is home at last, where you’re safe and warm in your coat of arms with your fingers in a fist, while we see her running on a highway far far away from home, from comfort. Of course, it can be argued that home works as a metaphor for freedom, and that is something that I do agree with. But there are numerous small incidents of irregularities between the lyrics and the visuals.
I think these irregularities, if looked at carefully, bring us to a deeper level of deconstruction. While at its face level The Ballad of Cleopatra is certainly a story of one woman, it doesn’t necessarily need to be so. The contradictory tone of the lyrics and the visuals, Cleopatra’s detachment from her bodies to display the moment of tangencies of a better life, her reflections of her past/future self being presented to us as memories show us that the woman that we’ve been looking at for the entire ballad, may not be one woman at all. And in that sense, Cleopatra literally is the story of all of us, our regrets, our sorrows, our loves, and perhaps our selves. And the same tattoo on the arms of all the Cleopatras, and the painting of the ship in the waves that recurs throughout the ballad, and interwoven lives of the characters do suggest the possibility of Cleopatra being the same person, but it can also indicate materialization of an internal connection between all of us. It can tell us that we may not be all that different from each others and our stories might not be all that different in reality.
When we look at it this way, The Ballad of Cleopatra takes care of our initial criticism that visuals narrow the focus of the music to one particular story. If storytelling is indeed a measurement of the quality of an art-piece, The Ballad of Cleopatra certainly is one of the strongest and finest piece of music that has come in recent times, both visually and lyrically.
All said and done, who is Ophelia? When Wes says Oh Ophelia, you’ve been on my mind girl like a drug, he may not be referring to a lover. Instead, he may just be referring to a woman that he met on a cab ride. She told him her story and he fell in love with the story. And made The Ballad of Cleopatra out of it. Ophelia, and Angela, and Cleopatra may just be the same person. And by that, I mean that, perhaps, we are all Ophelia.
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