“Humble and Kind”
Tim McGraw’s “Humble and Kind” video ends with a “special thanks to Oprah” for allowing use of some scenes from a series on her network called Belief. It is very much that kind of music video; extreme close ups of a diversity of faces in a black room, with occasional medium close ups of bodies in elegant motion. McGraw offers advice like to “know the difference between sleeping with someone / and sleeping with someone you love” over these, and other shots of people in their cities or sites of worship.
Despite its platitudinous lyrics, the song itself is pretty fantastic. The song itself is the title’s moral; there aren’t really characters or a narrative, and it is delivered in a way that is clearly supposed to evoke a situation like a father giving his son advice. Musically, that means a fairly stripped-down approach; the song is driven by an acoustic guitar and lightly brushed drums, that don’t do anything fancy but are still pleasing. What works so well about “Humble and Kind” is that it manages to come off as though that is all there is while still incorporating really interesting flourishes throughout that fill the song out. When McGraw sings that “When it’s hot eat a root beer popsicle,” for instance, fiddles slowly descend into the mix in a way that doesn’t distract from the driving guitar but that offers a beautiful externality.
About ten seconds into the song, there is a sleepy beeping sound that hovers in the background very briefly. I can’t quite tell if it’s something like the decaying reverb off harmonics on the electric or something from a lap steel guitar or some kind of synth itself, but it is a kind of density that turns out also to contain foreshadowing. Because what makes “Humble and Kind” so fascinating as a video is a sequence that runs from 3:08 to 3:14. Where prior it had been a nearly textbook example of a liberal diversity narrative, at 3:08 a space shuttle flies into view like an inverted star destroyer in the Star Wars opening.
The initial reaction is to assume this sfnal imagery is a stutter or break within that narrative; why would this relentless effort to produce the human across apparent difference culminate in the absolute rejection of the human image in favor of the technological? There is an easy answer, of course. What the video does with this sequence is not the aporia of liberal humanism, but its simplest apex. Where does this production of the human go, other than to the fraught imaginary of Spaceship Earth?
Like that light beeping ten seconds in, which sounds much like the kind of special effects that never lose a place in science fiction film or television, the sfnal turn at the climax of the video is presaged by the earlier images of medical technologies. A woman being passed under lasers isn’t that jarring in context, although something about it seems as though it should be. The video doesn’t insist on effacing the old or infirm, as a lot of things that partake of this narrative might, but the message of the song seems ideologically disinclined to engage with the actual techniques and practices of dealing with these. There is a reason so much of the cult of the human intersects with the post-New Age mentalities of holistic medicine and natural cures.
All of this, of course, relies on certain assumptions about relatively static cultural elements. It might be entirely possible to read “Humble and Kind” alongside, for instance, Lee Ho-Jae’s 2016 film SORI: Voice From The Heart (spoilers follow). The titular SORI is a crashed NSA satellite that has grown a conscience, and helps a father comes to terms with the loss of his daughter before trying to find a girl it was responsible for putting in danger in Afghanistan. Near Earth outer space is no longer dominated by the frontier-imaginary it once was, which the Spaceship Earth meme relies upon. The space shuttle that opens the sfnal sequence in “Humble and Kind” very quickly gives way to the camera being hurtled along on a satellite as it orbits Earth, providing a slightly different view. Satellite’s don’t see the Blue Marble like moon-trips do; they pass rapidly over a blanket of blue threaded with a web of gold. It’s a fairly obvious visual metaphor for communication systems, that also just happens to be an actual picture of the actual world.
That this rapid juxtaposition of the old Blue Marble with the new Gold Threads should happen in the context of the aggressive liberal humanism of the rest of the “Humble and Kind” video is what makes it so interesting. There’s something about how each element in the whole thing telescopes, from how the hyperfocus on the individual to explode their individuality mirrors the simplicity of the instrumentation being used to justify an immense amount of flourishes to the way the close ups do their work but also exist only to explode into the long shot. Each element collapses into the others so simply, and it takes work to find the residue those collapses make.