Pop For Skeptics: Why Are Music Videos So Obsessed with Fairy Tales?


Once upon a time, pop stars used to be just like us. But then at some point — probably during their impressionable youth, while the rest of us were stuck in SAT prep classes — they were whisked away to an enchanted world of pop superstardom. It was the promised land of excess and beauty, where everything is magical all of the time. Louboutin heels served as glass slippers; award ceremony afterparties as fancy balls; black limousines as horse-drawn pumpkin carriages; and hunky A-listers as Prince Charmings. Yet it’s an open secret that when most of these pretty young things got sucked into the vortex of pop, they also found themselves having to grow up overnight. While they shirked the banalities of roommates bugging them about the ConEd bill, pop stars found themselves entangled with the messier parts of becoming an adult too soon: contracts, scores of people relying on them to make piles of money, and grueling hours that most of us probably only begin to reckon with as adults.

So it makes a lot of sense that some of the biggest stars in pop have, at one time or another, have employed fairy tale motifs in their music videos — what other trope could so evocatively represent the difference between who they used to be and who they are now? In addition to providing a venue to meditate about who they have become, these children’s stories allow pop stars to reconnect with that younger, perhaps forsaken version of themselves. Perhaps that explains why the fairy-tale music video trend pervades popular music across cultural, geographical, and musical divides. After the jump, we explore some rock and pop stars’ kitschiest fairy tale fantasies — many of which harbor curiously dark messages about coming of age.

Katy Perry, “Wide Awake” (2012)

Katy Perry is just the latest pop star to cash in on tropes inspired by The Wizard of Oz and Alice In Wonderland. In the video for “Wide Awake,” Perry ends up tapping into her inner child during a weaker moment in her adult life. It’s a theme that finds her character navigating a hedge maze with this young girl, who ends up clearing some major obstacles for her — like slaying a couple minotaurs — and giving her the strength to punch out Prince Charming, an obvious reference to her split with Russell Brand. Ultimately, the singer and her inner child part ways and there is the grand a-ha! moment that finds Perry is in her dressing room, buoyed by this ability to connect to a more fearless version of herself.

Tori Amos, “Strange Little Girl” (1999)

Tori Amos tapped into a more anarchic quality of fairy tales in the video for her cover of The Stragglers’ “Strange Little Girl.” Amos touches on the mythology of The Little Red Riding Hood as an allegory for growing up and confronting your demons — the Big Bad Wolf, in this case. Maturity and refuge are both elusive until the girl finally confronts the demon — a confrontation that echoes the singer’s demand, “Strange little girl / Where are you going?” Amos’ use of the fairy-tale trope ultimately takes on a didactic tone, with the singer admonishing us, “There’s no need to run and nothing to fear.”

Namie Amuro, “Do Me More” (2008)

Not to be underestimated for its ability to twist Western conventions, Japanese pop adds a complex layer to what’s otherwise an innocuous mash-up of fairy tales. There is a subversive Manichean angle to Namie Amuro’s “Do Me More,” which, on the surface melts down Snow White, Alice In Wonderland, a dash of Hansel & Gretel, and the Good Witch/Bad Witch binary of The Wizard Of Oz to a single story. While we’re all familiar with Snow White‘s classic happy ending, Amuro’s video wraps up on a disconcerting note, wherein the Good Witch turns to the little girl — who has already fallen under the spell of the apple — and encourages her to eat another one. Partnered with the spare English refrain, “Do me more,” this is a dance anthem about unequivocally embracing excess. If Perry’s “Wide Awake” is about liberating your inner child in order to find strength, Amuro’s “Do Me More” delivers the opposite message.

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (1985)

Lying perhaps smack dab in the middle of Amos’ fairy tale didacticism and Amuro’s fairy-tale dystopia is Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ classic “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” It taps solely into Alice In Wonderland, and among the myriad disturbing ways Petty and his band bend the mythology of that fairy tale, none is more unnerving than the final scene, in which Alice is being carved up and consumed as a birthday cake — Petty’s own attempt at melding didacticism and dystopia into a single, morbid conclusion: People will chew you up if you let them.

Spice Girls, “Viva Forever” (1998)

When we think back to the Spice Girls’ heyday, it might occur to us how quickly and wholeheartedly we fell for these easy hooks, bought into the Girl Power message, and subscribed to the entire culture of merchandising they built around their brand. It’s no surprise then that their video for “Viva Forever” finds inspiration in The Pied Piper, with a dash of European folklore. The five fairy stars — CGI-animated versions of the Spice Girls, endowed with festive wings — emerge from a Rubik’s Cube, lead a couple of wandering children to an open field, and end up luring one of the kids to an oversize gumball machine. Curiously, in what may well be the band’s darkest video, we see only four of the five fairies re-emerge from the gumball machine in its final moments — a possible reference to Ginger Spice’s departure only months before the release of the clip’s release.