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Breaking down "Stress"

Be advised-- strong content ahead.

Months after its debut, the controversial music video for "Stress," the last single off of Justice's landmark debut, still manages to roil the blood. After a super-slick one-two punch that hypnotized the hipster set with flashy, top-flight graphic design in videos for "D.A.N.C.E." and "DVNO," the Parisian techno superstars took a provocative left turn in "Stress," a video that follows a gang of minority youth as they terrorize innocents in Paris slums, all while sporting the iconic Justice crucifix on their hoodies. It's been banned from Paris T.V. and has netted a wide range of critical attention.

Its implications aside, "Stress" is an uncommonly fine music video. On trembling handheld cameras, a film crew documents the petty crime rampage of the gang as they smash a busker's guitar, tear groceries from an old woman's arms, tussle with security in an elevator lobby, and perform a carjacking. The violence is bloodless and brutal and viscerally real, and the passersby are so sincerely alarmed that it's hard to question the video's reality.

The racial implications are hard to ignore. The riots that paralyzed Paris neighborhoods are still fresh in French memory, and there are several touchstones with American race relations.  But the most intriguing questions are raised by the relationship between the on-screen cruelty and Justice's image as glitzy clubsters. Rather than legitimizing or endorsing the violence, the morbidly self-referential video indicts the very fame and superficiality that Justice has spent their meteoric rise creating. We passively accept every assault and violent sexual advance, hypnotized by the gleaming gold crosses on the gang jackets. The music and the iconography anesthetize us to the cruelty unfolding, until, at last, the gang turns their vengeful attention to the camera crew and to the viewers themselves.  It all goes out in a hail of hellfire-- the shitty coupe they've jacked is up in flames, the film crew flees for their lives, and the video leaves the viewer spat upon and solidly whooped.

We deserve the abuse. It's not a short video, and it's not easy to watch-- to reach this final moment requires patience and a strong stomach. But it's Justice. It's safe, right? It's hip and it's sexy and it will make us cooler. So we watch every bitter minute, tapping our toes the whole way. And by the end, it's our head smashed on the pavement.