This song and video plays very delicately with gender and sexuality. If you’ve ever read Robert Greene’s The Art of Seduction, you’ll recognize the seductive archetype of the dandy, one of the more interesting and powerful ones. A woman who dresses in a masculine fashion, who commands and leads, yet still retains her femininity. More common is the converse, the man who dresses in a feminine fashion and so captures their fascination, the masculine dandy is no less devastating.
Such a woman is powerfully seductive, and the video tries to capture why. Taking place inside a completely fantasized workplace, it opens with Ne-Yo just getting in to work, and being virtually assaulted. This isn’t just fantasy, it also reflects a great deal of sexual frustration on the part of men, who have to deal with women at the office but aren’t quite sure how. Ne-Yo’s senses go wild, by the time he gets to his office he has to stop to catch his breath, and even there, he’s not safe.
Of course, being Ne-Yo, he could have any one of them. They compete for his attention like kittens. But their sheer number turn them into background noise, and so they fade away, providing a canvas upon which his boss stands out in striking relief, both figuratively and literally.
Here is a woman capable of flustering him, putting him off guard, even though she’s no more attractive than they are. She recognizes this power and uses it. Surprisingly, Ne-Yo’s not put off by this, as the guy at 1:26 who notices their dynamic would assume.
How can a woman who dresses as men do, who appropriates the gestures and moves of a powerful man, who can intimidate them, still be sexy? Robert Greene is far more eloquent than I can be on this, but you can see it in the visuals.
Notice the scene at 1:11, when the women dancers strut in. The previous dancers in that space have all been male, they kind of fade into the background behind Ne-Yo. But these are immediately recognizable as female, in three ways. Their hair is all pulled back into a bun, they’re all wearing heels, and the way in which they are moving is undeniably feminine. Otherwise you wouldn’t be able to tell; they’re wearing ties and what look like standard off-the-rack men’s suits, men’s hats, and carrying briefcases. It’s not an accident that there are three masculine and three feminine traits portrayed.
They could have made them look less feminine, by subduing the hair and putting them in flats, then having them surprise you once the jackets come off. But the point behind these cross-dressing dancers is emphasize that it’s the mix of masculine and feminine that’s the real lure. They didn’t have to do this, they could have put the dancers in the same feminine professional clothes the rest of the girls in the video are wearing.
It’s a subtext, the underlying message transmitted to Ne-Yo’s fans that only they’re going to get. The message is instructional, in the same way that Kesha’s bridge where she says the DJ’s “got me,” or when Britney says to “spit it out, cause I’m dying for company.” If you want to get with me, and the men or women I’m mirroring, this is how it’s done. Create a playful mix of the masculine and feminine, show him you’re inside his head, and you’ll have him hooked.
The subtext is the real reason people watch pop, this idea that they can aspire to lead lives like the stars, full of glitz and glamor. And it’s the reason you should be watching it too, because even if you think you’re too smart for it, chances are, your spouse or girlfriend or your market or anyone you come in contact with doesn’t. These stars trade in narrative and drama, if you lack a sense of it, you’re just not going to be as effective persuading them.
Watch the end scene, where the boss “apologizes” for cutting Ne-Yo off in the meeting. It’s a script. She’s been messing with him all day on purpose, just to set up this meeting, to give him the opportunity to open up to her. He’s fascinated and gives her just what she needed to hear, that she’s the boss, saying it twice to drive it home. And she responds again according to script, she acts amused and superior at his not-so-subtle flirtation and walks off, flustering him again. Loving the feeling, he follows her like a puppy dog.
To understand these interactions, watch them again and imagine what it would look like should they have had different reactions. What if the boss, instead of rolling her eyes and turning her back on him, stayed and flirted some more? It wouldn’t be in character, decreasing the potency of the scene.
And therein lies the secret to subtext. You, casual music video fan, are not going to bother rewatching a vid over and over, but the fans are. This is their life, their identity, their way of spicing up their otherwise boring lives.
And if your life isn’t spicy and interesting, don’t you think it could be?