A new generation of pop stars is queering and subverting the high school music video trope

Injecting some much-needed life into the classic genre of music videos set in high school.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Summertime at high school has been a favourite setting of music videos for decades. It offers the perfect mix of boredom, angst, sexual frustration and playfulness that can either transport you back to – or lift you out of – your own teenage school experiences. From The Ramones in detention, to pigtailed Britney tapping her pencil on her desk and staring wistfully at the clock, to Charlie Simpson making eyes at the teacher (a personal favourite), the high school music video is a little canon all of its own.

It’s taken many forms over the years – pop punk bands like My Chemical Romance, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Fall Out Boy and Wheatus had tremendous fun with the social outcast trope in the early-mid Noughties, as did Taylor Swift when she was still selling herself as the uncool country girl in jeans and sneakers. Some (particularly much younger) singers used the setting to position themselves as the cool kid (JoJo, Austin Mahone), while others explored the tension between two states (Lil Mama’s “Lip Gloss”, N.E.R.D.’s “Rock Star”) or cliques (OutKast’s “Roses”).

But in the last five years or so, the trope has felt vaguely embarrassing. Miley Cyrus singing about her miniskirt while sitting in a schoolgirl’s bathroom fetishises youth far more overtly than her controversial “BB Talk” video (which sees her dressed as a literal baby), but with none of the latter’s self-awareness and irony. Iggy Azalea’s Clueless-referencing “Fancy” just feels try-hard. 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Good Girls” rests on the same idea of good girls desperate to go off the rails as Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, 16 years later.

The only truly mainstream act to create something fun and relevant with the school-set music video is Little Mix – who have created excellent high school narratives for their 2015 songs Black Magic and Love Me Like You”, which throw themselves into Disney Channel original movie-esque worlds of geeks, jocks and makeovers – complete with exaggerated facial expressions and cartoonish characters.

Part of the joy of these videos is that they resist the patriarchal undertones of some of these traditional narratives by essentially ending on a note of “aw, we’re just four best friends here to have a great time!” rather than pairing off each girl with the man of her dreams. They are irresistibly delightful works, even if they retain some of the less progressive clichés of female competition for male attention.

But there’s a new generation of pop vocalists injecting some much-needed life into the high school music video in 2016. In February, Halsey released the video for “Colors”, set at “Badlands Prep” – Halsey and Tyler Posey star as the school’s perfect couple.

But the twist is that Halsey is actually horny for Posey’s blue-eyed, grey-haired father. It shifts some sexual agency back on to the women at the centre of these videos, and allows for a rejection of the typical naïve-girl-falls-for-handsome-but-good-hearted-jock story.

In June, Shura released the video for her dreamy single “What’s It Gonna Be”. With a timeless, retro setting, it follows Shura as a space geek, her nerdy male friend Nick, a beautiful cheerleader type (Sarah) and a hunky jock (Brad). While the dorky dude starts out crushing on Sarah – kissing her picture in hallways, falling at her feet in the bathroom – and we see Shura and Brad making eyes at each other in biology, by the end of the video those heteronormative expectations have been joyfully confounded.

Shura and Nick concoct a plan to talk up each other to their respective crushes – but in doing so, Shura falls for Sarah, and Nick falls for the Brad. The video ends with two gay kisses and the two couples running happily into the sunset outside school. On the narrative of the video, Shura said:

‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ is about having a massive crush on someone, so it made sense to go back where to school, where it all began. But it was important for us to explore those archetypal characters – The Jock, The Nerd, The Dork, The Popular Kid – and then flip expectations. ‘What’s It Gonna Be?’ is based on my personal experience as a kid; thinking you're in love but then realising that's maybe just because you feel you should be (and ending up with someone totally unexpected).

This week, Hayley Kiyoko released her self-directed video for “Gravel To Tempo”. Dressed in oversized double denim, Kiyoko looks at a group of intimidating popular girls with a mixture of (Mitski-esque) envy and longing. When she spontaneously breaks into uninhibited dance in front of them, their reactions vary from horror to amusement.

Kiyoko explained:

“From the beginning of writing that song, I envisioned myself in front of all the girls I had crushes on in high school. I remember so well what it was like to idolize other people and look for validation from them. But then I grew up, and I realized: The only validation I need is from myself.”

It’s a kill your darlings moment, as Kiyoko literally dances around burning pictures of the popular girls. But it’s undeniably sexual too – Kiyoko pulls girls towards her, plays with their hair, and triumphantly takes the already-chewed gum from one girl’s hand and puts it in her own mouth. It’s funny, liberating and surprising – like all the best feel-good music videos. Let’s hope other directors follow in her footsteps.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.