The First Video That Meant Something To Me: Aaliyah's "Are You That Somebody"

The First Video That Meant Something To Me: Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody”

by Shani O. Hilton

Part of a series for the new Awl Music app.

I was of MTV-watching age right around the time the channel was transitioning from showing long blocks of music videos to reality-show programming. And, of course, “Undressed.” But between mornings before school, and “TRL” in the afternoons, and late nights, there were still a few hours a day when you could catch a run of clips. While I can name a dozen or so that made an impact, Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody” was maybe the most important. It was the first video that showed me hip hop could be both sexy and weird.

Sexy I understood. Women have been decoration in hip hop and r&b; (and rock and pop) for as long as the genres have existed. Artsy or raunchy, it was all the same: Women’s forms are for looking at. But Aaliyah — dead eleven years this past August — stands firmly in the center of her videos, practically demanding that you look at her, yes, but you’d better look her in the eye.

She is, of course, ridiculously beautiful. And she is backed up by many dancers who are also beautiful. Their moves (and baggy pants + crop tops) elegantly combine the masculine and feminine and somehow they come across as both aggressive and sinuous. The aesthetics go from standard (shiny track pants) to weird (suddenly they’re performing a flamenco). A baby coos in the background. Also the whole thing is set some sort of underground bunker that they got to by motorcycle. And even though the song is really long — try listening to it on its own and you quickly realize that the last minute and a half is fairly repetitive — with the dancers, it’s mesmerizing.

Besides, the video was such a huge hit that it was eventually retired from “TRL.” Which, when you’re 13, seems like something that matters.

Shani O. Hilton is a journalist in Washington, D.C.