With the release of the music video for her new single, Clearly, Grace VanderWaal has shown that she’s not just a prodigy when it comes to words and song – she can pack an emotional punch in the visual arts department, too. Though directed by Brian Petchers, it is from an idea by Grace, was superbly acted out by Grace, and all shots were approved by Grace. What other fourteen year old can say as much?

The video opens simply, with a shot of the outdoors. No spectacular sunrise, just a nice day, with plenty of bird song to let us know that it’s still morning. An average morning of an average day, but important to let us know that the world outside is a good place to be. Quickly though, just seconds into the video, we move to a shot of Grace indoors, and immediately know that things are amiss: she gives us a look that can sink hearts. Before a single lyric has been sung, the stage has been set for all that is to come. This is storytelling at its best. Four seconds in and we already have the mood: somber.

She’s looking out, presumably on the world she longs to join, but something is holding her back. Her hair is disheveled and she’s been crying. All is not well. Further shots show her laying about; lonely; forlorn. Several times we see her looking out through windows, a confirmation of our impression that she’s gazing longingly at the beautiful world outside. But she hasn’t even bothered getting dressed properly for the day, wearing sweatpants and sweatshirt and fuzzy socks – baggy clothes, which, added to tangled hair, show that she doesn’t care about her appearance. With that we get the first lines of verse, declaring openly her sad state and affirming our belief: she doesn’t feel part of the wider world.

But it’s during the building tension of the first pre-chorus that we see one of the most poignant scenes thus far: Grace at a makeup table. But she’s not there to make herself look pretty. In fact, she’s using a fat stick of brown greasepaint to apply thick lines to her cheeks and chin, and if you watch the strokes carefully you see her painting onto her face the fracture lines of a broken doll. This image has been a recurring theme in many of her songs and videos – ‘A doll made out of glass, and she’s about to break’ from Moonlight, and the cracked porcelain doll images from the Clay, Beautiful Thing and Gossip Girl lyric videos. This is a powerful statement about the fragility of her psyche. That she would choose to use this symbology while singing “. . . same mistakes, always got me shakin’ ” is telling. She feels broken, but not broken by the world. Whatever has brought her to this state, she did it to herself.

I want to take a moment to digress here and speak of Grace the actress, and probable future Academy Award winner. This performance of bitter sorrow was so superbly acted, so believable, that it’s hard to imagine that there was not real bitterness and sorrow somewhere within her. It’s the same sort of thing Grace has done with her vocal performances. Who can not imagine the utter fear and desperation with which she sang ‘Darkness Keeps Chasing Me’? That Grace can project emotions with her voice better than any singer alive is really no longer up for debate. That she can do it with mannerisms and facial expressions as an actress of outstanding ability will one day (soon I suspect) be recognized too. From anecdotes shared by her mother, it seems Grace can even cry real tears on demand, so the production crew probably didn’t even need to prime her tear ducts with onions (or whatever it is they use to get real tears). The director probably just said, “Cue crying. And . . . action!” and tears flowed freely down her face. End digression.

At the chorus now, we see yet more brilliant symbolism: as the first cymbal strikes, she sweeps the contents of her makeup table onto the floor, as if to say she’s had enough of making masks to cover over her pain. But then, just before Grace begins to sing, ‘I can see clearly now . . .’, a strong wind blows into the room, disturbing the curtains and flinging not just her hair about, but paper too. This is to signify a battle taking place; possibly a battle for her very survival. Surely she’s fighting to overcome whatever demons are pinning her down . . . but they’re fighting back. This has religious overtones to it, and given Grace’s church upbringing, might she be aware of scriptures such as Ephesians 6:12 – ‘For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’? Pretty deep stuff, to say to least. But such symbolism isn’t yet done: it’s tied together in later scenes.

Even as the battle begins to rage about her, Grace takes a rag and wipes at her face, erasing the cracks. She’s not going to accept being broken. In fact, she’s not broken at all, because it was only ever just a state of mind anyway. As she’s erasing this false brokenness, her face displaying utter desperation, she sings the song’s most powerful line: “I accept all the things that I cannot change.” Acceptance of who she is. Acceptance of flaws, acceptance of deficiencies, and yes, acceptance of past mistakes.

We also now learn why the song was set in a minor key. While major keys tend to ‘feel’ positive and good (which is why Johnny Nash’s original song was in a major key – it was a feel good song), minor keys tend toward a darker mood, even melancholic, and Clearly is not meant to be a happy-go-lucky storyline. You can see as much in Grace’s image reflected in the mirror – not one of happiness, just determination. So even as she sings, ‘It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day’, you can tell that she doesn’t truly believe it. Her depression lingers. Her sadness is there too, just as palpable as before. Things aren’t just magically coming up roses. In truth, she’s not turning a corner in her life because it’s a ‘bright, bright, sunshiny day,’ but because she’s determined to live her life as though it is. This is told to us explicitly in the next verse when she sings, ‘I force my feet down to the floor’, and visually by showing her feet walking across the room. At first, she’s still wearing the socks and sweatpants of her housebound, depressed self. Then a transformation occurs, and Grace reappears to us dressed to face the world. We see a visual of her feet again, this time in shoes, walking boldly forwards towards the future she desires. Determination and grit. That’s what it takes to face life head on. She won’t let depression win. To borrow from a different song, she’s not going to let the darkness catch her.

Several more shots of her lingering in her house are used to allow the song to build towards the next milestone: actually stepping out the door, timed to the next chorus. Again, the strike of the cymbal is used to key her bursting through the door, ‘forcing her feet’ to take that first step out into the world. It’s here that we get the next great visual: Grace out in the front yard now, with the house behind her. And looking out the windows is one of the most interesting elements of the whole video: a choir in white robes. While it is easy to assume this is a church choir, a better explanation that ties into the earlier struggle against her demons is to believe that these are angels. After all, who exactly was doing the battling against Grace’s enemy? Besides, they’re in the house looking out the windows, apparently after clearing each room of any remaining enemy combatants. But now we see them in celebration, and again considering Grace’s beliefs, might she be aware of scriptures that speak of angels celebrating in heaven at the redemption of one lost soul? Or maybe just rejoicing over her deliverance from the ravages of depression. Also, might the fact that there is such a deep echo in the choir’s accompaniment indicate that these are ‘spiritual’ beings singing along, rather than a mere white-robbed choir of humans? And why would she have a church choir in her house in the first place? A chorus of angels, actually unseen by her, just makes more sense.

The last visual I want to consider is the use of the sun to emphasize her deliverance. Several times during the second chorus, the bridge that follows, and the final chorus we see the sun washing out the scene, hiding Grace within an all-encompassing light. Is this meant to represent Grace being embraced by God? Certainly feeling God’s presence in lieu of feeling depressed is something that can’t be represented easily in a video, but an encompassing light might just work well for that. Also, there seems to be no other good reason to have the sunlight wash out the scene, even if momentarily.

Finally we have the end of the song, ‘. . . bright, sunshiny day,’ but not sung brightly, as one might expect, but in a very somber tone – the same tone that began the video. You can even see it in the last image of her face. She’s reminding us that fleeing from depression is both a choice, and a struggle. There’s nothing magic happening here, just hard work and determination. She won’t leave us with the illusion that it’s otherwise.

This article was first posted on VanderVault’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XydnaaaaSnE&lc=UgxS5rwURjfldE6s2ex4AaABAg