who am iamamiwhoami?
by Andrew Collins
In December last year a YouTube channel was created under the name iamamiwhoami, a teaser in itself. Uploaded, was a bizarre video clip of a bleak forest setting with arms and legs emerging from trees, as if they were coming alive. There was also a female covered in oily black mud or make up, immersed in equally dark water, and a goat. In fact, a scene of a goat giving birth, which was soon removed, allegedly due to breach of copyright. All of this was set against a backdrop of eerie electronic music, which wasn't half bad.
iamamiwhoami singer gets down to a little tree hugging.
The video so intrigued the YouTube nation that it easily became a viral success. It was clear that there was some deeper intention behind this all-too short video clip, presumably the future release of an album by some major artist or artistes wanting to use a new approach to marketing their products.
Over the next three months five more videos from iamamiwhoami appeared on YouTube, all featuring the same sylvan female, whose blacked out elven face, large doey eyes, and platinum blonde hair, cascading down her back, offered a tantalizing glimpse into what might be behind this compulsive venture. With it came a wealth of dark symbolism set against tantalizing musical clips, mostly electronic in composition. In fact, everything about what was going on begged question, and interpretation.
of the six videos, shot from a warped and often fish-eye perspective that gave
very little away, bore titles that were simply sequences of numbers, in either
single or double figures. Keen eyes quickly realized that by substituting the
number with its corresponding letter in the alphabet (i.e. a = 1, b = 2, c = 3,
etc), further clues were revealed. For instance, the number sequences for videos
4 and 5 spelt the scientific name for the mandrake, Mandragora officinarum, one
of the most highly-prized plants in European folk magic. Its naming made sense
of the appearance in one video of the plant's leaves, which spring out the roof
of a log cabin positioned at the top of snowy slope, like some jack in the box,
perhaps indicating a birth, or point of origin, inside the building. Other videos
featured the stark redness of the strawberry; in one instance a strawberry flies
around the trunks of trees, while at the end of another a whole bunch of them
hanging on a mobile plunge downwards into shot. Some commentators have proposed
that the strawberries are meant to represent the red fruit of the mandrake, which
kind of makes sense. More on the mandrake later.
for a strawberry? The iamamiwhoami singer has to choose.
video clips also bore clear animistic connotations, each one being associated
with a different creature, with the sequence from one to six going goat, owl,
whale, bee, llama and, finally, monkey. Each one appears as a graphic, accompanied
by their call or sound. Collectively, these creatures might also spell out a clue,
although what that might be is still undecided.
Other themes that seem to crop up not without purpose is a barking black dog, lots of trees and forests, and that woman, a sylvan nymph, conjured from some dark European folktale. She licks and hugs trees, an act that verges on dendrophilia (a fetish for trees), while white semen-like sap drips seductively from a vulva-shaped knot in a tree. Everything is always dark, ominous and edgy, heightening the senses even further into believing that something important is going on here.
No one watching the video clips could help themselves from attempting to interpret their strange symbolism. Did it contain some clue as to the artist or artistes behind these mesmeric creations? Very likely, and very quickly names began to be banded about - Goldfrapp, whose past promo videos have included clear animistic themes, courtesy of Alison Goldfrapp and her blatant obsession with the subject; MGMT, due to the wacked out psychedelic journeys that their promo videos are; Lady Gaga, since she is the only young female artist weird enough to go this far, and, finally, Christina Aguilera. Hold on, can we have that again? Er, Christina Aguilera, the R & B blonde bombshell with international hits that include "Genie in a Bottle", "Beautiful" and the perhaps apt "Dirty".
Why Christina Aguilera? Well, other than a multitude of unlikely clues gleaned by viewers of the iamamiwhoami videos, the soul deva was due to drop new album "Bionic", which, as coincidence would have it, was due to feature tracks produced by the Goldfrapp team. Thus two seemingly diverse things were converging to solve one greater mystery - Goldfrapp's sylvan weirdness, about to rise again with the release of their own new album "Head first", due March 2010, could be combined somehow with Xtina's urgent need to reinvent herself in the wake of Lady Gaga quite publicly stealing her voice and thunder over the last year or so.
That Christina might be the face behind the iamamiwhoami video campaign caused the big wigs at MTV to sit up and take notice. If it was her, then they could not been seen to ignore the story, so began their own campaign hinting that the R & B singer was the most likely candidate in the hope of being proved right in the end. This ensured that all six iamamiwhoami videos became firm viral hits, generating even more speculation as to who was really behind this bizarre teaser campaign.
In the mean time everyone denied it was them. Alison Goldfrapp, MGMT and Christina herself, all denied they had anything to do with iamamiwhoami, a stance that started to see MTV's interest in the story wane somewhat. So if not Christina, then who was responsible for these bizarre videos? Just how long would the artist or artiste involved want to keep their identity secret? Wasn't three months enough time to ensure the success of the campaign?
For my own part I became interested in the iamamiwhoami phenomenon after reading a piece on the subject in the NME. I watched the videos carefully, and examined the evidence. The female's ethereal vocals and spoken word bore a continental accent, although this could have been put on, obviously. It was certainly not Alison Goldfrapp, or Christina Aguilera, and definitely not Gaga, although I would have loved it to have been her. What a way forward after captivating the world and instilling as normal her own brand of sheer wackiness. And as for MGMT, I couldn't see the connection at all. So I looked beyond the obvious links, and noted that the log cabin featured in three of the videos seemed Scandinavian, as did certain aspects of the creepy pine forest used as a backdrop for the videos.
Musically, it was a difficult one. The arrangements and instrumentation did not seem to fit any of the candidates, other than, say, Goldfrapp. My hunch, however, was a connection to Swedish electronic wizards The Knife, or one of the duo's side projects, perhaps Karin Dreijer Andersson's Fever Ray. The Knife wear bizarre masks for promo shots, hinting at the anonymity of the iamamiwhoami videos, plus there was that seemingly Scandinavian forest setting, not to mention iamamiwhoami's Euro accent. This all hinted that such lines of thinking were somehow on the right track. But the female from iamamiwhoami was certainly not Karin Dreijer Andersson, so perhaps it was a similar such electronic band, or a collaborator (all this is so easy to say now in retrospect).
Then on March 14, in the early morning, European time, iamamiwhoami uploaded its first full length video, entitled simply "b". It opens in a log cabin, looking like a show room from the IKEA catalogue, and, after a few shots of a black cat, we see the same female as in previous video clips, although now she is sitting at some old keyboards and covered in clear plastic tape. There is then a lingering emphasis on her long fingers hovering over the keys, the sound of the plastic rustling, all of which is emphasized in a slightly disturbing manner. She then begins to play a glorious tune that starts with a low spoken rhyme, a quiet rap, not unlike the one in All Saint's pop classic "Never ever".
Nice, a masterpiece, but this time vital clues have been given away as to the identity of the artist involved. Keen eyes quickly spot clear connections with 29-year old Swedish singer-songwriter Jonna Lee (an artist signed with Razzia Records, Stockholm). At one point in the video we see the heads of three stern looking gentleman seated on chairs. They are in disguise with beards and old fashioned hair styles. These individuals are recognized as members of Jonna Lee's band, along with her fiancé, the producer and pianist with Travis Claes Björklund. The electric piano used in "b" was also identified as one visible in a promo shot of Jonna in her recording studio. Then there are the comparisons between the two women - both have slightly askew sets of gnashers, their big doey eyes and long platinum blonde hair are the same, as are their continental vocals. It all made sense, iamamiwhoami is Jonna Lee, a little known recording artist with two albums, an EP and various singles to her name (all available on download only), who splits her time between her native Sweden and the UK.
Yet listening to any one of Jonna Lee's many songs available on her YouTube channel, or on her website or on her MySpace page, and you start to get very confused, for they seem a million miles away from anything being created by iamamiwhoami. In fact, musically, Jonna's normal vocal delivery seems a cross between ex-Spice Girl Emma Bunton and sixties songstress Joan Baez. There is no hint here that she is about to transform herself into a cross between horse-tail wearing Alison Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga after a bad night out on ketamine.
She said she couldn't comment on the rumours. So was this a denial of her connection with iamamiwhoami, or merely a case of: I refuse to comment?
more baffling is that Jonna Lee is now promoting her new album "I am Jonna
Lee", released in March. Having listened to it tracks, I can confirm that
they bear no similarity whatsoever with the strange sounds made by iamamiwhoami
(although, admittedly, Jonna has revealed that electro mixes of some of the tracks
have been done).
The Coming of "O"
Then on April 12, speculation rose that something was about to be uploaded on the iamamiwhoami YouTube channel, following the appearance a few days earlier of a new video clip that gave away very little, and disappeared as quickly as it came. Finally, during the early afternoon, a brand new track and video, simply entitled "o", went online. Set in the same log cabin as "b", the female singer was now amid rooms of tall potted plants. Indeed, she herself is seen standing in a pot full of soil, implying that she is growing into the all-important mandrake, originally seen in an earlier video sprouting from the roof of a log cabin (presumably the same one).
track itself begins with a minute or so of weird electronic sounds, that would
not sound out of place on a more gentler Nine Inch Nails album, before the whole
thing launches into a perfect slab of electro, worthy of Depeche Mode's greatest
hour. This is accompanied by a hypnotic vocal, carried by an ethereal choral chant
that continues to echo even after the music has stopped. Magic.
iamamiwhoami lady in "o" wishing she hadn't
The iamamiwhoami singer starts the track immersed by a linen mesh that, although see through, conceals her identity. This is finally removed to show her face and head, and around her neck we see that she is sporting a plastic cone dog dollar, the reason for which is not made clear. More significantly, you are able to see her facial features clearer than ever before, and this time it has to be Jonna Lee.
You realize now that the teaser campaign has worked a treat. All the videos have been watched by millions of people around the world. The full-length track "b" has managed to gain over 300,000 views in just one month, while in just five days "o" had managed to clock up over 100,000 views, which is quite incredible when you think that Jonna Lee is a relatively unknown artist outside of Sweden.
World domination is on offer now for iamamiwhoami, and good luck to them, her, whoever. The campaign has utilised a marketing strategy unlike anything before online, keeping everyone guessing right through till the very last. And even now Jonna Lee is apparently still refusing to confirm her involvement in iamamiwhoami, which you have to give her, is clever if you want to keep the game going.
We now have two full length tracks, "b" and "o", both of which are available for download (see below for details), plus an officially commissioned remix of "b" by Tara Busch (which is excellent, by the way). Presumably the music featured in the shorter video clips belong to other tracks that will be released as part of an album. It makes sense, and I look forward to purchasing a copy in due course.
The only question remaining is: what is all this about, really? How did Jonna Lee go from being a steady singer-songwriter, working hard to achieve international recognition and success, into a tree-licking, black faced sylph with a penchant for animism, mandrakes and virtual dendrophilia on a scale that some might be led to question her sanity? No one who might have been following Miss Lee's career could ever have seen this one coming. No one. Her change in style is not so much a reinvention, but a complete transformation, comparable to Saul's little weird one on the road to Damascus, and it is this that has prompted me to write this article - that and the fact that I am now hooked!
Now, I don't really know much about Jonna Lee, but it really does seem like her seemingly pleasant world has been hijacked by a dark evil twin from a parallel dimension - one that is everything she isn't, nor would ever have been. Don't take my word for it. Just examine any of Jonna Lee's promo videos, and there is certainly no obvious hidden symbolism, no obsessive themes, no darkness, nor any evidence of a slightly unhinged existence.
Jonna Lee in her best Joan Baez pose.
Something has happened to Jonna Lee, and I need to find out what. Clearly, she is working with others in this venture, the members of her own band, for starters, including her fiancé, producer and Travis member Claes Björklund. He might even be on the knobs, and playing keyboards as well. Yet there remains the distinct possibility that Jonna is collaborating with other musicians, with completely different mindsets. If so, then my money would be on fellow Swedes Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer of The Knife, whose dark electronica would fit in nicely alongside the haunting melodies of "b" and "o".
Yet whoever Jonna Lee might be working with on this project, we somehow have to assume that she is responsible for the decision to incorporate deep-seated symbolism in the iamamiwhoami videos, and this needs some discussion to understand what might be going on inside her brain right now. Take, for instance, the emphasis in the videos on the mandrake plant, almost as if she is growing into its human embodiment.
inflatable solar panels available from IKEA? No, just a giant
The mandrake is arguably one of the most important plants in the magical arts, being used as an aphrodisiac and a powerful drug. Known also as Satan's Apple, Mandragora, and the Devil's Testicles, the likeness of the plant's roots to arms and legs, has led to ut being seen as a little human being. Indeed, in many botanical texts the mandrake is even drawn in the form of a man or woman with leaves sprouting out of their heads. According to legend, if a mandrake root is yanked from the ground, breaking its roots free, the plant gives out a piercing scream that is fatal to any listener. For this reason, to remove a mandrake a cord should be tied around it, and then attached to a dog. When called, the animal will pull at the cord and tear free the plant, killing itself in the process. It is perhaps not without coincidence that a black dog, a known psychopomp, of accompanier of the human soul as it departs this world, appears in the iamamiwhoami video clips.
The magical potency of the mandrake comes across in Guillermo Del Toro's 2006 Spanish language fantasy movie "Pan's Labyrinth" (Spanish: El laberinto del fauno, "The Faun's Labyrinth"). The main character of the film, a girl named Ofelia, uses a living mandrake, that has the form of a human baby, to restore the health of her pregnant mother. The plant is placed in a bowl of milk and left under the woman's bed. Ofelia is caught feeding the mandrake, which is then burnt, causing it to scream out aloud. Yet as this happens, her mother goes into labour and dies giving birth to a son, almost suggesting that the life of the mandrake goes into the new born child.
Due to the immense amount of mandrake references in the iamamiwhoami videos, and the suggestion that Jonna Lee herself is emerging into life as one, there must be a chance that she has been influenced not only by the role of the plant in European folk magic, but also by its appearance in the extremely dark fantasy setting of "Pan's Labyrinth".
Backing this up is the plethora of birth imagery in the iamamiwhoami videos, which in addition to the mandrake references, include the female of the videos lying in a foetal position within black primal waters, the goat (another pagan symbol) giving birth, the sap trickling teasingly from the vulva shaped knot in a tree, and, of course, the strawberries, which in European folk magic were made as offerings to the elven folk in the belief that this would ensure the healthy birth of calves.
On top of this, there are clear signs that the iamamiwhoami team have learnt a few tricks from other cult horror movies of recent years. At places the video clips bear a distinct similarity to the video tapes that brought about the death of the watcher in The Ring, while the claustrophobic sense of despair displayed in The Blair Witch Project is also present in some of the woodland scenes. Both movies offered hidden agendas, convincing the viewer that simply by watching them, whatever occult presence was behind them could come after you as well. I sense this same mentality in what iamamiwhatami are trying to achieve with them own videos, whether this be on a purely psychological level or otherwise.
Now it could be that I am reading more into this whole symbolism business than was originally meant. Although this is the thing. When symbolism is incorporated into something profound, people will always look for, and find, more. I know this from my promotional work with gothic maestros Fields of the Nephilim: fans can see anything and everything the band do as having hidden meaning, and symbolism.
In this manner, iamamiwhoami can capitalize on this search for hidden symbolism in their creative output, by working like master magicians - never ever revealing just how much of it deep meaning was actually intended. In fact, since iamamiwhoami have not yet played any live shows, they could extend this mystique to their stage appearances, which could become magical ceremonies in their own right, again very much in the manner that Fields of the Nephilim have managed to achieve with their own unique gigs.
Lee need never reveal her true involvement in iamamiwhoami. Why should she? Keep
the mystery going, I say, even if it means denying the blatantly obvious. Long
may she be remain mysterious - the transformation is complete: her dark twin is
in control. Never let go now, and don't ever look back.