Thursday, April 26, 2012

Natalie Imbruglia: Torn

Sometimes I get the silly idea that I spend too much time on YouTube. Whenever I start to take such an absurd notion seriously, I think of Natalie Imbruglia’s "Torn."

For those who’ve never seen it, or don’t recall, do yourself a favor and take a gander—if you're pressed for time, just check out the first 45 or so seconds.

Okay, so now presumably I can talk about it and not have to worry about spoilers. As you now know, if you hadn't before, the video starts off as a standard semi-narrative video, a plaintive waif singing in her apartment, intercut with shots of her boyfriend, sometimes in the background, perhaps post-tiff, or the two of them kissing romantically.

And then out of nowhere another guy pops up—literally, he pops up into the frame—and moves both Natalie and her "boyfriend" back about a foot and half so the camera can catch more of them. And you wonder what the hell was that? And then you realize that he’s the video’s director. And then the video cuts again, and she’s singing once more. And another cut and you see folks working on the set behind them. And they keep quick cutting so that sometimes it’s just Natalie singing to the camera, all heartfelt and emotive, and sometimes you’ll see the make-up artists working on her hair, or the crew members working on the set, or her and her co-star acting out their planned roles.

It’s an odd and incredibly unusual choice the director made. The story goes that they shot a normal video but in the editing stage realized that showing the "making of" section in the actual video itself had never been done and was really interesting.

And they were dead on. It’s fascinating. Because, and this is a bizarre paradox, by showing the behind-the-scenes stuff, they manage to both highlight the inherent artificiality of videos and give us a true glimpse of the artist behind the song at the exact same time.

It’s an amazing feat. You see her getting her hair done, you see her and her co-star screwing up their blocking, you see her idly stretching between takes, you see them kissing passionately before suddenly breaking it off in irritation and—best of all—you even, at two different points, see a wall on the set either collapse, or nearly so, and crew members rushing in to avert disaster. And it all both illustrates perfectly how artificial all videos are and yet how authentic this one by dint of its honesty in revealing its artifice.

By letting us see these screw-ups and unguarded moments, by occasionally dropping the façade, this video lets us see the real people behind the pretense, in a way that’s very, very rare indeed. Not even interviews or concert videos can do that, because in those situations the artist always knows the camera’s rolling. Here the camera is basically ignored except during an actual take, so during the several days of taping, it simply morphed into another part of the furniture, at least much of the time. It became the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, and therefore, by extension, so did we.

The heart of the video may be the second time through the chorus, where she sings "illusion never changed into something real." She sings all the previous lines of the chorus directly into the camera—the longest uncut shot of the entire video—but halfway through this line they cut to her waiting for a shot to be set up, with a light meter being held in front her face, making sure the lighting was just right for optimal effect. In yet another beautiful twist, this video itself proves that line about illusion to be untrue, to be an illusion itself, and in doing so, uncovers yet another layer to the entire thing.

I should mention that if it weren’t for the greatness of the song itself, originally by Ednaswap, the brilliance of the video wouldn’t count for much. But "Torn" is an utterly perfect pop song, with good lyrics, a great, ever so slightly off-kilter melody and absolutely flawless production. When it first came out I was completely entranced, but assumed I’d eventually tire of it. It’s been fifteen years now and although I’ve probably occasionally gone years between listenings, I’ve yet to get bored with it, even after hearing it scores, maybe even hundreds, of times. It is as wonderful as pop gets. The fact that there’s a video that’s up to its incredibly high standard is not merely a nice bonus, it's astounding.

But it is a very, very nice bonus indeed. And as great as the entire video is—and it is—the most glorious part is at the very end of the song, during the easiest (and one of the most effective) slide guitar solos in pop history. Just as the slide come in, Natalie begins dancing. But it could not possibly be more obvious that her dance wasn’t choreographed or even planned. She simply whirls around like a child, dancing the way you do when you think no one’s watching. Apparently, she was mortified when she saw the video and discovered the director had stuck that oh so unguarded moment in there. Which is understandable. She looks like a moderately graceful person just screwing around—miles away from the typical pop star, with her razorsharp and terrifically impressive moves honed to a cold, machinelike perfection.

This is not one of those dances. This dance is…well, it looks kinda goofy. It looks fun. It looks warm and spontaneous and joyful. It actually looks most like the home videos a sibling sometimes posts on YouTube, hoping to embarrass the 12-year-old caught dancing when he thought no one was watching—frankly, I'm surprised no one's edited a lightsaber into her hand yet. But it's not embarrassing, not in the slightest. It’s magnificently human and vulnerable and sweet in a way we so rarely see in popular culture. It is utterly transcendent and the marriage of that naked moment and the beauty of the music behind it reminds me of just why I love this stuff so much.


  1. Whether intentional or not, I like the finished products deeper concept. When the fake walls come down that's when one can really dance naturally.... And she sure is a natural beauty.

  2. Very cool
    I loved reading this. :)