Jack Stauber has been making videos for under a decade, but to look at them, you’d think they were VHS tapes that had been sitting for thirty years in maniac’s dusty garage. There’s flashy, glitchy, colourful words jumping across the screen with moving backgrounds as a simple, playful duet sings about a spicy peppermint for 33 seconds. Children’s drawings of peppermints pop out of the surreal green grass in a simple 2D terrain: “Can I have a peppermint? / You can have a peppermint / That’s too hot for me! bleh! / Hey!” It ends on a VHS-distorted black screen, with the simple text: “created by Jack Stauber.”
To many, this may seem like a video produced by a child for fun with no deeper meaning or artistic expression, but fans of Jack Stauber love to dive into the symbolism of his imagery and infer deeper meanings that are beyond the immediate.
From childish, crude, innocent animations to clips that could be seen as the re-creation of nightmares, Jack Stauber makes content that many would consider more as art than entertainment. Popping out of the blue every so often to release a new video with no description, Stauber leaves the analysis to the viewers to speculate and discuss the meaning by studying the implied clues that he leaves. But what may make Jack Stauber so special is his signature nostalgic 80s VHS tape animation style and serious themes that are presented in exuberant, simple, repetitive music and visually appealing animations.
Stauber first released music under his name in 2013 with his album Finite Form. Since then, Stauber has released three more albums, with Pop Food and HiLo both having garnered hundreds of millions of plays. His signature sound comes from old synthesizers and 707 drum kit samples to create a memorable, nostalgic, and distinctive tone. His most popular song, “Buttercup,” went viral on TikTok, leading to various fan-made animations to the song. In 2020, he won the Shorty Award for “Best in Weird.”
But what may be more interesting than his music are the animations that accompany them. From claymation to MS Paint stop motion to rudimentary 3D animation, Jack Stauber uses a variety of media to create his effects. However, they all include the same VHS feel and music motif, as Jack Stauber notably converts all his videos onto VHS then records the output to provide authentic VHS compression artifacts to make it feel as if the video is being played on an old TV for the viewer.
With many of his videos having implied, extended topics of serious emotions and issues using abstract, muddled lyrics and unnerving visuals, the audience will often pick out the clues that Stauber leaves to create a bigger picture.
“I get playful with the words but they’re always chosen very carefully. They all make perfect sense. I wouldn’t sing something if it didn’t,” Jack Stauber said in an interview.
This can be seen on the short and unsettling New Normal, a video that was released just as the COVID-19 pandemic started. The short song seems to talk about having to adapt while managing grief of the past, as seen in lyrics such as, “Say goodbye to those who cannot join us,” and “Decorate your new face,” something all of us were doing at the time with our masks. The video portrays a bald, almost-human creature isolated in an underground bunker, in a garish and barren landscape that seems to have been drawn in 2 seconds on Microsoft Paint. As per Stauber’s style, the video has lots of VHS artifacts and glitches, which makes the video feel eerie and reminiscent of the past. There are scenes of characters waving their last goodbyes while others float upwards to the gloomy sky, a man crumbling away to leave just his skeleton like dust blown off an old artifact, and a terrifying and unsightly smile being held up by boney pale hands. The scenes are unified by the motif of grief and the passing of time.
Another notable piece of work that displays the VHS artifacts, serious topics, and nostalgic music and animation is from Stauber’s “Shop: A Pop Opera,” a multi-part short made for Adult Swim. It was released in 7 parts in early May 2019. The series follows a man meeting different people while grocery shopping. Each segment raises new existential topics such as time, addiction, and mistakes.
The first person he meets is a handicapped elderly woman who’s vaguely shaped like a milk carton. Soon after, the protagonist encounters a carton of expired milk and goes on a musical reverie about death and growing old. Scenes show the milk carton going through the stages of a human life, like polaroid pictures of the milk in different places and an anthropomorphic glass of milk transforming from a baby to a senior, ending with the milk carton with a halo being pulled up on a fishing line into the sky to presumably dairy heaven.
Later he meets a jumpy caffeine-addicted woman, prompting the song “Coffee,” about reliance and addiction. The music video portrays anthropomorphized plain white mugs attempting to entice the protagonist into consuming coffee. “Just a sip! / It’s the flavour you want!” with their human-like mouths trying to make compromises with the man to consume the caffeinated drink.
In both of the videos shown, we see jolly and simple songs with VHS altered claymation and colourful animations. Jack Stauber’s unfiltered, surreal, and uncanny style with nostalgic music provides videos that could only be described as outlandish and eerie. With varying negative, positive, or even silly or frivolous topics like an old couple complaining about missing seltzer for a minute, his content is diverse and ever-changing. Stauber has said, “Art is a big coping method for me, too. She’s my outlet. If I feel down, I make something. If I feel happy, I make something.”
Featured Image: Cooking with Abigail – Jack Stauber (Still Image)