What is it about the high school setting that is so appealing to revisit in mainstream film, television, and music? Is it the fact that we are a part of a nostalgic culture, and our teens are the first period in our life that we can all (mostly) remember?
Whatever the appeal of that narrative and general aesthetic is, it’s a setting that is often returned to in popular art. Tame Impala’s 2015 album Currents wasn’t a huge hit for me, but after seeing their music video for The Less I Know The Better I have listened to that song hundreds of times. It’s one of the rare occasions where a video doesn’t just compliment the song, but expands on it. While I’m late to the party with this (it was released in November ’15), I felt the need to write something about it, and try to somehow nail down what makes it so riveting.
My key experience with it was being mostly ignorant of the lyrics (I’m bad at picking them out, especially with Kevin Parker’s falsetto) so the literal interpretation that comes with the lyrics was lost on me a little, and I think this is for the better. I may be reading into it more than was expected, but as a piece of art it has life and meaning beyond the artist’s intentions. For instance, I didn’t realise that Lope Serrano (one of the collective CANADA, who directed the video) refers to the story as literally “a love triangle between a basketball player, a cheerleader and the team’s mascot, an apeman called Trevor”, a simple story taken straight from the song. Romance is key, clearly, but I initially understood the “costumes” of cheerleader and gorilla as symbolic. There is to me a distinction between the reality of the basketball player (Albert Baró)’s experience and the subconscious/fantasy we delve into; the creeping shot through the air vents serving as a transition into his mind.
The lyrics are simplistic, both in their meaning and their rhyming structure, but fits with the often transparent expression of entangled thoughts and emotions in teens. Kevin Parker referred to the song as an outlier on the album, “dorky white disco-funk”, but I think that it is incredibly effective in tandem with CANADA’s imagery.
If we are seeing interpretations of the actually occurring narrative based on the Basketball Player’s emotional response, then it makes sense that, regardless of their actual roles, the girl (Laia Manzanares Tomás) is the cheerleader and the rival is the gorilla mascot. She is given a typically-popular position based around inciting passion in fans, and “Trevor” is on a similar pedestal. The bestial aspect plays in too, as he is represented as both a figure of animal lust, power, and stupidity. In the company of The Cheerleader he is either bringing out the animal nature in her or claiming her in a twist on King Kong (1:50). The metaphors are pretty on-the-nose, but effective – he is bound and blind-folded, Trevor’s fur seems to infect everything, and the animation shows the Basketball Player literally “scoring”(4:16).
The Cheerleader is an object of desire, to be sure, and this is definitely a version of her defined through a male gaze. The eroticism is counterbalanced by the absurd humour – it’s clearly ridiculous, and a base hormonal reaction on the protagonist’s part. CANADA took inspiration from “Allen Jones, Guy Peellaert and the book Electrical Banana” in some of the animation and visual effects, especially the images of paint being poured onto an invisible body. It’s a a pure distillation of his desire, a way to visualise that sense of want at its most basic level, with personal identity removed, . The juxtaposition of these more experimental images with the few “real” moments of The Cheerleader (fully clothed and not sexualised, e.g. 2:57) has the latter appearing as flashes of memory, with these abstract fantasies bursting forth from a glance across the gym or passing wordlessly by one another.
The Less I Know The Better is a visual expression of the lust, frustration and longing of someone in this position, told with a sense of heightened reality and dream logic. There is a sharp contrast between the infrequent scenes of realism and the infinite possibilities the fantasies provide. And that’s what I think this taps into, in the way that the best teen movies do – the sense of possibility confronted with restriction. Like New Year’s Eve, it has the chance of being fantastic, but any failure to live up to these elevated expectations can be crushing. This sense of loss and lack of catharsis is what makes the wish fulfilment of most mainstream teen movies and television appealing; something that feeds back into culture and sets those expectations once again. Watching shows like The O.C. filled the gap of what I wasn’t getting from high school as a teenager, but also set me up to be repeatedly disappointed when the promise wasn’t kept. The Less I Know The Better gives closure in the “defeat” of the romantic rival, but its trivial and besides the point. It’s an expression of a moment(s) of passion that goes nowhere, and like a lot of teenage experiences, it amplifies the unimportant into something all-consuming and significant.