Letters to a Student: An Analysis of “Peanut Butter Jelly” by Galantis
I taught Media Studies at The University of California, Berkeley in the Fall of 2015. During that time, students would ask me questions about how music videos that they were watching related to the course material. I had a bad habit of sending very long, very intricate responses, like so:
tl;dr: I like this video a lot.
Alright, so first, some aesthetic/film choices. I think that there’s a clear shoutout to The Big Lebowski. It’s happening in a grocery store, and it has that muted 70’s feel that I associate with the film. The music video also uses a secondary color palette — seriously, look at all of the produce, which is orange, and the outfits, which are primarily orange or muted green. They nailed it with the popsicle, and even within the aisles everything fits into this color scheme. It really contributes to that old-time and/or Coen Brothers vibe.
So with that stage set, we have the two cat-jacket characters (cool cats? I guess that would be more 50s/60s) entering the store, looking supremely casual next to the carefully choreographed movements within (I love the hint at the rollerskates as the woman floats along in this world, owning her sexuality with that #popsicle). I also can’t help but notice that they’re all quite average, but like… Not in a bad way? It’s a very diverse cast of people, representing various ages, races, and body types. I think this video is supposed to represent a day in the life—some people feel resigned, popsicle girl likely feels trapped, and the people working here are just bored. Frankly, it’s dull exposition, and as readers, we might be wondering why the heck we’re watching this.
At around 1:30, the characters in the video finally hear the song, with a siren call of “spread it like” from our orally-fixated friend, Popsicle-girl. I think it’s important to revisit color, as well as form. The outfits are glossy and skintight, which I think is meant to look crazy and fun or whatever, but it’s also a celebration of who these people really are. They barely fit into these things — stuff is spilling out every which way. A lot of the costumes are also white, a choice which is guaranteed to make all but the most svelte of people look like laundry machines… Or maybe refrigerators (white makes shadows very dramatic — this is why the little black dress is so popular.) I did notice, however, that the Indian woman and produce man are wearing brown outfits, and with this earthy, secondary color palette, they start to fade into the background.
Now, I’d argue that there’s some Freud locked up in this rising action. Freud is all about the id (our primal, carnal desires), the superego (societal restraints, like church, law, and the social contract) and the ego (the balance between them.) I don’t think these people are succumbing to their id, though — I think that Galantis might be arguing that they’ve gone so far to the realm of superego as to be dull — literally and figuratively. They blend into the world and each other. Their dancing finally gives them some individuality, some sexuality (which seems celebrated in the video) and some desperately needed fun. The most obvious example of this is the woman HORRIFIED at people being sexual, and then dominating the screen with an iconic pose and quite literally “letting her hair down.”
Cue our friends Adorno and Marx at 2:30 when money starts raining out of the cash register. Galantis celebrates money, but NOT, it seems, consumerism or labor. At first, I was a little critical of their insistence on raining money on these people — why does money always need to be tied up in fun or joy? But, I think there might be a message that money is like… An experience? To clarify, they implicitly endorse Adorno, because we are being told that a rain of bills is one of the most fun things we can experience. We’re being sold a lifestyle; find a way to make lots of money, likely by working hard.
But the money just kind of flows around these people, and they laugh and keep on dancing — it’s just a part of the experience, rather than the source of their joy. I’m still a little uncertain of this analysis because there’s a pinata full of money at around 3:15, and they have to take an active role in breaking a pinata to get at the money inside. Do the characters know the contents? Do they scramble after the money once it breaks open? We don’t really know, but I would give Galantis a pass on this, because usually the raining money trope is reserved for the wealthy — it’s a display of their wealth rather than a means to it — and it’s also a celebration of childhood and all that. These aren’t super affluent people getting even more affluent.
In keeping with Adorno & Marx, however, let’s note that I suddenly want a Fiat. Nice product placement, Galantis. Which model changes color like the one in the video?
To end my rambling, though, the why. Why this music video?
Well, first, I think that the song has a funk vibe to it with the synth horns in the background. It’s reminds me of Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder, and so the aesthetic of this video fits quite well. I think it’s also just trying to democratize the song. Like, oftentimes when you see a music video it’s beautiful people dancing really well.
When we dance to single ladies, it’s often making a joke of ourselves waggling our hands back and forth. We can appreciate what Beyonce’s doing, but not all of us can replicate it, and we ruminate on our lack of dancing talent, going to sleep each night sobbing tears of anguish wondering why the Gods have cursed us with two left feet and the rhythm of a bear drunk on mead.
Er… I mean, the Galantis video doesn’t force us imitators to be great dancers. It just encourages people to have fun. It’s a song — a song about spreading “it” like peanut butter jelly. No matter what you look like or how talented of a dancer you are, you can just have a good time with this music. Go ahead and emulate them, because ultimately, the choreography of these humdrum citizens milling around the store might seem haphazard at first, but when we take a look with a critical eye, the dancing is still worth being called choreography. The video doesn’t become interesting until they break out of that recitation, finding the beat of their own drum in the asinine (or perhaps pleasantly minimal) lyrics of these cat-jacket strangers lurking in the pulse of the omnipresent song. Their flailing is joyous, and their gyrations robust; they remind us enjoy the motions of their own bodies, and to celebrate the fact that sometimes, we just want to dance.
Ricky “Peanut Butter Jelly” Holtz