On Jan. 29, 2018, “Different R&B” artist DEAN released the music video for “Instagram.” The official audio for the track was released at the end of December, with a 34-second trailer as the only visual accompaniment.
Never one to do anything halfway, Dean had a hand in directing the video, along with director flipEvil and long-time collaborator 96wave. So it’s no surprise to anyone that the MV’s prominent message is coated in layers of meaning dripping with subtext. There’s much to unpack in this video, and no doubt there have been several dozens of theories and explications since its release. For the sake of time and space (a theme rampant in this video, but more on that later), I’ll aim to unpack the first layer of context and leave the sleuths among you to pick through each detail to find the red line of connectivity.
There’s a notable silence, a pervasive and eerie quiet disrupted only by the chirping of fingers gliding along the taut strings of a guitar. These precious few moments before the song begins in earnest are the video’s first and only, as the quiet is soon disturbed and only returns on the back end of a great deal of noise.
And none of it fills the emptiness.
DEAN, while most certainly telling his own story about the struggle to keep up and maintain an image (his avatar, if you will), poses as all of us in this video. The “Everyman” literary device works overtime to ensure the audience finds him or herself lurking in the main character. It is no mistake that we only get a close-up of him in the beginning and the end. At first, a super close-up focuses on concrete, tangible objects: his hat (its texture, the logo), a bandage under his right eye, glinting gold protruding from his mouth. What glimpses of his actual face we get are effects of movement, a rocking back and forth as he strums the first notes of the song on his makeshift guitar: the skateboard.
From that moment on, we observe DEAN from a distance. It’s apt, this long shot from the main character in the video. As a viewing audience, we are certainly at a distance, separated by a computer screen and time.
There’s a false sense of connection to the protagonist as he agonizes over his predicament. To maintain this sense of oneness with his viewers, however, it’s necessary to keep his face out of the picture (the hat covering most of his face, the bandage, the grill, which at first glance is an eye-rolling bit of costume jewelry, but upon deeper inspection is just another means to mar his countenance, to further distance himself from those who see him as a face whose music is a side effect of his profession).
The screen distorts and overlaid images of different permutations of the entity known as “DEAN” flash for that single breath before the song starts in earnest. This moment gifts us the only splash of color in the video (beyond the credits), painting him as a piece of entertainment, the viewer flipping through channels to find different manifestations of who he is in order to keep him trending, until finally settling on this so-called reality (“#dean, 2,556 posts”).
This zoomed-out single shot also represents how every aspect of our lives in this digital age is at a distance. There’s a physical disconnect from everything around us. We can’t touch it, we can’t taste or smell it. Even those we talk to are across a digital map of space, science and time. We are never truly in-sync with any of it. All the information we gather comes in scattered fragments, and in our futile attempts to keep up, the world becomes oversaturated by wisps of information that are at once pertinent to our existence, then float away like so much dust on the breeze in the wake of another sandstorm of data.
Images of pop culture figures, most notably from the silent film era, and former US president Barack Obama. The bygone era of actors relying on exaggerated movement to convey a message (relying on a director, their “master,” of sorts, to speak for them) makes way for generations driven by a necessity to speak loud and fearlessly against systems that would otherwise keep them quiet. President Obama’s presence, his addressing the press, highlights a peak of spoken thought, of people daring to step up and over a ubiquitous oppressor.
There’s only a matter of time before the powers that be attempt to quash the voices of the dissenters, those who yearn for justice in a time where freedom has become a bargaining chip. A vicious cycle — silence, the fight to speak, the inevitable war on free thought. It’s no accident that images of war invade the space and remain there long after President Obama’s spoken his last word.
Every moment we spend entrenched in this “square ocean” we are at war with everything — fans, naysayers, ourselves. To have to pull back from the screen only to find the world beyond our keyboards is itself on the verge of war is enough to split us in two.
There’s no coincidence that the footage is of an old man’s war. With as far as our society has digressed lately, Korea may have its conclusion as the ruling powers in the US usher in the fourth installment of the World War.
This all ultimately culminates in an overactive mind, every synapse firing at once, leaving us floundering somewhere between the present and a sort of “Virtual Insanity.” Until suddenly the mind completely shuts down, our human processing system crashes, everything goes dark and in our attempt to reacquaint ourselves with everything, our minds completely explode.
It’s telling that the only moment he actually lifts himself from the chair is when he declares “Lonely lonely so lonely. Are things always this hard?” It’s his one moment to truly grab onto something real, something that’s only him in that moment. The world is a melting pool of information and chaos around him. His toes are thick in this social soup. It grabs at him until all he can do is slump to the floor when the rare moment of silence creeps in.
Then the noise starts again. From that fraction of a second of quiet, the reintroduction of music is like a bomb detonating. His conscious is obliterated, and he’s sat frozen in time in a half scream, half plea, the room distorting, his body consumed in a swirling flame. Then he simply drowns.
sometimes i feel alone
even when i’m with a lot of people
i feel like i’m robinson crusoe
that’s what i feel
After that moment of confession, a few seconds of clarity in which he defines his life in this din, the scene rights itself. The pool is gone. The walls are painfully still. Yet there are differences to the room, missing objects that once filled his world (the skateboard, for instance, the one solid thing he held in the video). These things have abandoned him, and his only tether to reality, the chair he sits in, has become his prison. He never moves more than a couple feet from the chair at any given time, his allowable perimeter well-defined. This small space represents both our anchor to this world and the chain. It at once grounds us and confines us.
There’s a hole in my heart
Nothing can fill it up, yeah
I’m sinking right now
Inside a square ocean
What lay at the heart of the music video, the song itself, is that we can become lost in this cacophony of sound. There’s a constant buzz of information, a whirlwind of voices telling us what we need to know, how we’re supposed to exist in this new age of technology and social consciousness. In the end, when it’s only us in a lonely room, full of … things to occupy the space, there’s complete silence.
When it’s all said and done, we are all we have in our own minds, in our spirits. That loneliness, that incessant and never-ending silence, pulses louder than the onslaught of chatter that surrounds us from day to day. It’s enough to make us go mad. Once our protagonist realizes this, the credits rolling, the music still flitting in and out of his peripheral, he’s left to just … laugh.
The room itself pays loose homage to Frank Ocean’s “Endless,” an album and music video all in one — his bit of rebellion against former label Def Jam/Universal Music Group (everything is connected even in time and space). Again, an apt visual marker. The adage “we laugh to keep from crying,” until there’s actually nothing else to laugh about. And after all, as Ocean’s dual releases from 2016 will attest, “Boys Don’t Cry.”
There’s a madness in DEAN, a hole that an alleged ex-girlfriend dug deep inside him — or an object of an obsession, an “idol” whom he’s built an entire existence with:
So how are you these days?
I’m still the same, can’t sleep
Your short hair looked so pretty
But I didn’t press like
Cuz it just seems a bit funny
Just wasting time like this
Inside your Instagram
There’s a palpable urge to fill the space with something, if only just the sound of his own stilting cackle. We see his face, transmogrified by too big false teeth, another layer of noise meant to portray someone still struggling to create a persona based on what people tell him he’s supposed to be. From one moment to the next, his smile, more a stretched grimace (reminiscent of a scene from “Black Hole Sun” or even a hint of Kuchisake-onna) melts into a tired, disturbed look of neutral apathy. We are doomed to live surrounded by loud nothingness until it cracks us and leaves us both desensitized and lost for emotion.
That’s it. That’s all I can do. All I can process. Time to go back to DEAN’s Instagram and see what other goodies he has ahead of the release of his highly anticipated sophomore effort, “130 Mood: RVNG.”