Aaliyah still casts her shadow over modern R&B now, 17 years since her passing at the age of 22. This is in spite of factors that conspiratorially seek to undermine that continued appeal, like legal battles that have kept her final 2 albums out of print and off streaming services, or her estate’s rejection of Aaliyah-obsessed mega-star, Drake, who wanted to produce a posthumous album from the Aaliyah archive. So why does her legacy endure? I can hardly claim to be a knowledgeable fan, so understanding the attraction of Aaliyah to her fans is important to unpacking this undying love, and in turn, to fully appreciating Cara Stricker’s dazzling tribute, The A – Z of Aaliyah. Was she just that cool? Well see, that’s not really it.
Now Aaliyah most certainly was cool, and this film is definitely cool—that kind of urban fashion cool, popular on Instagram, artier music videos, and in work that graces the virtual pages of outlets like Dazed or Nowness (this one was for the Vice property i-D). Populated with strikingly unique and diverse models that sport on-point styling and exhibit graceful dancing, it is the kind of video that you would never admit to disliking (even if you do) for fear of being considered uncool.
If, undeterred, you proclaim these 7min as an empty exercise in style anyway, I won’t blame you—it certainly occupies an outlier status in our programming, which has sharply retreated from fashion-adjacent editorials in the past few years. But, as someone who programmed this kind of work for Vimeo Staff Picks for 5 years, trust my ability to spot the real deal, and look closer. Stricker takes the tired “A – Z format” and bends it out of recognition, privileging visual and audio flow over a linear alphabet structure, constructing a multi-format film that gloriously, yes, sometimes maddeningly, floats between the forms of fashion film, profile doc, visual poem and experimental dance piece. The individually stellar vignettes rapidly shift from ethereal streetscapes to grainy archival video, before transitioning seamlessly into decked out studio sets, all inspired from Aaliyah’s career, and all in a stream-of-conscious fashion. I have a working theory I’ve employed for several years that a good music video needs at least 3 ideas. This is film has a minimum of ten. While Stricker’s artistic direction is a main draw, through it all, this seemingly chaotic free-association is held together by a simple and pure theme—Aaliyah was an original.
Stricker’s thesis, and that of numerous homages my cursory internet research revealed, is that Aaliyah was cool in that most classic way—by not trying to be. By instead projecting a genuine self-assuredness, she could be formally daring: in her music, in her dance, and in her fashion, and make it seem effortless because it was birthed from her own creativity and artistic drive rather than trend-chasing or obsessive packaging. While undeniably sexy, she was somewhat modest for the her period, notable for her trademark baggy pants that declared an undiminished connection to her roots growing up in Brooklyn and Detroit. Pick the over-used turn of phrase you like best, as Aaliyah followed her muse, or marched to the beat of her own drummer, she nevertheless became incredibly celebrated by doing so. In that way she embodies that most coveted of modern qualities—authenticity.
Aaliyah was cool in that most classic way—by not trying to be.
It’s easy to see in retrospect what a revelation this could be for fans of hers. It is really not too unkind to proclaim that the culture industry as a whole is largely predicated on undermining the self-confidence of young women, and that the music industry in particular is notable for its vampirish commodification of young female sexuality. That Aaliyah, a veteran singer at the age of 15, the victim of a secret, underage marriage to R. Kelly that resulted in an annulment could, “dust herself up and try again” and succeed—not through transcendence, but instead a devotion to pure self-expression, is a potent and inspiring rebuttal to the entire edifice of the system in which she took part.
In turn she imparted some of that confidence to her fans. Stricker, in writing to us, says that in conceiving this formally daring project, “Aaliyah inspired us to break the mold and suggested there was none to begin with”. This attitude of radical freedom suffuses the film and ties directly into the casting of the piece, which assembled a global group of five actors that were Aaliyah super-fans. Their flamboyant style and diverse backgrounds hammer the point home that Aaliyah’s influence is widespread, and everlasting, and neatly ties into modern debates surrounding identity—suggesting that in addition to, and perhaps even more so than her art, Aaliyah’s legacy is as a symbol of freedom, to individuality, that serves as a beacon to those dismissed, mocked or on the margins. That’s undeniably cool.