The BBC's God Only Knows video: fine art homage, or John Lewis ad?

The video for God Only Knows is replete with visual symbolism, but is it meant to bring to mind Rousseau, Degas and Van Gogh? Or is it a jumbled mash of nonsense?

They were asking for trouble with that title. What mortal, after all, can divine the cryptic meaning of the BBC’s God Only Knows video? It feels like a video version of Masquerade – that coffee-table children’s book full of apparently meaningless images that, if correctly deciphered, revealed the location of buried treasure. What is the BBC trying to tell us here? The clues are all there to be deciphered. The winner gets their TV licence fee paid for the year and a Blue Peter badge.

The first impression is: John Lewis Christmas ad. Celebrities playing hide and seek in a department store … great idea! The orchestra are in the lighting department, obviously. Pharrell has just come out of children’s wear, judging by his trouser length, Emeli Sandé has dropped acid in the Food Hall, Florence Welch is lost in the gardening section, Nicola Benedetti’s in the lighting department, too, about to cause a breakage. Brian May couldn’t think of anywhere so he’s showing off in the music department.

Tiger in a Tropical Storm
Just lacking Brian Wilson … Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm. Photograph: CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

But hang on, what’s Sir Elton John doing in that butterfly suit? And Lorde’s an angel? Brian Wilson and the tiger? Do they really sell tigers at John Lewis? No, of course, It’s art references! Elton’s turned one of his Damien Hirsts into a conversation-piece blazer. Lorde is a Sistine Chapel cherub, Wilson is in Henri Rousseau’s Tiger in a Tropical Storm, Eliza Carthy on her gilded carousel horse is a Dégas showgirl. Jake Bugg, bless him, has been placed a child’s interpretation of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – with some help from the orchestra. So there you go: the BBC has chosen to mark its renewed commitment to music with an homage to … er … visual art.

But then how does that explain Stevie Wonder with all those diamonds flying around him? Could it be there’s something else going on here? Something more esoteric and arcane? Things take a cosmic turn as we smash through the ceiling of this department store/art gallery into the realm of clouds and balloons. Is this really all about death? Butterflies, angels, curtains, Chris Martin lying on the floor – the symbols are coming together now. We’re in heaven now, aren’t we? Are these the musicians the BBC predicts will be next to die? That’s pretty tasteless, but Sam Smith ought to check his life insurance just in case.

Van Gogh Sunflowers
Van Gogh’s Sunflowers … Redolent of Jake Bugg. Photograph: The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Oh no, it’s gods! Of course! Chrissie Hynde is Selene, goddess of the Moon, Dave Grohl is Zeus with his lightning bolts, Zane Lowe is Apollo with his gold disc, Jaz Dhami is … some other sort of sun god, too. For a song about “God” it’s sure got a lot of pagan symbolism. Diamonds, the sun, the moon, the Fool (Jake Bugg, obviously). Could it be they’ve used our licence fee to create a vast subliminal introduction to the tarot?

Beneath the production wizardry and celebrity spotting, perhaps the best way to read the God Only Knows video is as a veiled premonition. It’s the ghost of BBC future. Look at those derelict, deserted surroundings: the pantheon of culture in ruins. The BBC empire has fallen, brought low by austerity cuts and broadcasting deregulation. We can but ponder its past triumphs with awe and despair. Our cherished popular entertainers have forsaken us. They’ve gone to a better place – we call it heaven, but in entertainment circles it’s commonly referred to as “Sky”. The BBC’s real subtext is: “God only knows what’ll happen if we don’t get our licence fee.”


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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