Calling a band “ambitious” isn’t necessarily a compliment; It was, after all, the word critics used to describe U2 in the 1980s, when Bono claimed that God wrote his songs. Bands like fun. and Foster the People face charges of skipping basement shows to play Madison Square Garden without first paying their dues. It offends a critic’s sensibility when a band blatantly aims high and then gets there. But it’s safe to say that Brooklyn’s Great Caesar, featuring frontman John-Michael Parker ’10 and saxophonist Stephen Chen ’09, couldn’t care less.
“I think we are ambitious people,” Parker says. “Dream big, dream boldly and jump at it. We think that if people live that way, they can live lives of integrity and” — he searches for a word — “consequence.”
Great Caesar have taken their` own advice, and it’s already paying off. Tackling homophobia in the video for their new single “Don’t Ask Me Why,” released on MLK day, the group has racked up close to 150,000 Youtube hits and kudos from the likes of singer Wyclef Jean and Def Jam founder Russell Simmons. Juxtaposing scenes of interracial and homosexual couples, the video compares the African-American civil rights movement to the current LGBT struggle for equality. The power of its message and its instant success are no accident.
“‘We can do better than that,’” Chen remembers thinking while going over early ideas for the video, among them a hipster love story set in Brooklyn. “Let’s do something that’s actually going to change the world.”
Such aims might seem surprising for a band that only a few years earlier wrote a song called “Sweet Banana,” and Parker admits with a laugh that the themes of their first music video, shot on Old Campus, “couldn’t be further” from the messages of “Don’t Ask Me Why.” But band members say the change isn’t as drastic as it might seem. They never wrote throwaway songs, “Sweet Banana” included (“I could give you an hour-long dissertation on that song,” Parker tells me.) They wrote what they knew, and when they wrote “Sweet Banana,” they knew they wanted to have fun. But today, surrounded by people making their mark on the world, the band strives to keep up.
Chen recalls the thought process that led to “Don’t Ask Me Why:” “How can we actually make this impactful? And why would we settle for anything less?”
It’s apparent from the first frames that questions like these led to the video’s lofty ambitions. Great Caesar’s in-your-face, danceable rock is toned down and honed into something tighter and more professional. The music has shifted to the background, Parker’s lyrics taking center stage. Unlike other indie bands, whose words are sometimes hard to parse, Great Caesar make no effort to be obscure: The song is a love story. The lyrics are ambitious and unafraid, their ambition and boldness impossible to miss, and the song oscillates between refreshingly frank and distractingly literal as a result. The video is similarly uncompromising: as McGill, the song’s other protagonist, endures a brutal beating, a rope of blood hangs from his mouth. Great Caesar pulls no punches, but this bluntness can lead to peculiar results. With the song’s narrative represented directly onscreen, one sometimes gets the feeling of watching a play rather than a music video. Great Caesar’s Bandcamp even credits guest singer Rebecca Ryskalczyk “as Marie”; the singers have become actors .
The first half of the video mirrors the song’s narrative, but it departs from the lyrics to call for equality and civil rights. It’s here, where the visuals are distinct from the lyrics, that the two work together most powerfully. It’s tough for a music video to be more than the sum of its parts when those parts are the same, when the images onscreen are a verbatim representation of the music. And early in the video, it seems that Great Caesar have bit off more than they can chew. But as the song and the video move apart, they become complements instead of components. And while the final shots — of the video’s cast frolicking in a field with their arms outstretched — might not be your cup of tea, the video’s overall effect is a powerful one.
It’s fitting, then, that the band is named for Caesar, because power is what they were after. They came, they saw, and while they might not have conquered homophobia yet, they’re doing what they can. The important role of music in the cohesion and propulsion of social movements is no secret, and few social movements today have the immediacy of LGBT rights. Macklemore’s “Same Love” garnered a Grammy nomination for its willingness to address the issue head-on, but Chen thinks music still has much work to do.
Thanks to that song, “You can hear [a statement for LGBT rights] in your car across the entire nation,” Chen says. “If our video can help those conversations, then I think we’ve done our job.”