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Friday essay: From Bowie to Bieber – the under-appreciated art of the music video

The music video for Justin Bieber’s Sorry is one of the contenders at Sunday’s MTV Music Video Awards. Justin Bieber Vevo/Youtube

Friday essay: From Bowie to Bieber – the under-appreciated art of the music video

The spectacular release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade earlier this year, and the critical response to it, has fleetingly put the music video in the spotlight. For a ubiquitous and influential art form, music videos tend to be easily dismissed and under-analysed, which means it took something as extreme as Beyoncé’s approach – an entire album complete with extraordinary visuals and social commentary – to draw attention to them.

This Sunday, the MTV music video awards will be held at Madison Square Garden. Beyoncé has received 11 nominations and there is even a new award category called Breakthrough Long Form Video, suggesting her influence continues to ripple through the industry. Adele has received eight nominations. Two videos featuring the late David Bowie, Lazarus and Blackstar, have been nominated for three awards.

Still, the lack of attention generally paid to music videos was noted at a recent event in Sydney, where a panel of music video directors gathered to discuss the state of the art form, and to celebrate the best examples in Australian video making (including award winning local clips Born Dirty by Butter, Love is My Disease by The Jezebels, and You Were Right by RUFUS).

Discussion of the music video reached its peak in the 1980s and early 1990s when these short, catchy clips accompanying pop songs exploded into popular culture. While promotional clips for songs had been produced in the 1960s and 1970s and collated on television shows like Top of the Pops and Countdown, MTV’s constant 24-hours-a-day broadcasting, (which began in 1981) made music videos all but compulsory viewing and revitalised the music industry.

MTV’s change of focus from music to reality TV in the 1990s and 2000s created a perception that the music video was on the decline. But today, music videos have branched out from 3-minute clips on dedicated music channels to a variety of forms on numerous media platforms. Music video style – attention-grabbing imagery (with or without a proper narrative), fast editing, and (usually) a visual representation of the music it goes with – now influences film, television and all types on visual culture.

Music videos can be long or short, filmic or fragmented, watched on television or the internet, and also folded into feature films and narrative TV (think of the musical sequences in films like Pitch Perfect and TV shows like Glee, Empire, Nashville) and then released online as stand-alone clips.

Pitch Perfect’s Cups, for instance, is sung by lead actress Anna Kendrick when her character auditions for the Barden Bellas acapella singing group. The spinoff music video with Kendrick in character has received more than 280 million views on YouTube.

The development of the music video

The very early days of MTV saw directors grappling with what the medium could do. Directors such as Russel Mulcahey, best known for his work with Duran Duran, created spectacular and often bizarre imagery in their clips.

In this example of Mulcahey’s work from 1984, we can see what became known as the “MTV aesthetic” clearly. There is fast and constant editing. The images are suggestive of post-apocalyptic visions such as those contained in the Mad Max films. There is, however, no more than a vaguely hinted-at narrative. The visuals respond to the music and lyrics but are not entirely beholden to either.

Not all responses to the rise of MTV were positive. Criticism included the idea that pairing music with images detracted from the music itself. There was also concern about the mode of viewing that MTV promoted, which was interpreted as being more about distraction than traditional forms of television. The non-stop parade of colour, glamour, and disconnected images offered by MTV was seen as a reflection of a superficial, consumer culture.

Concern also arose about the way particular groups were represented in music videos. MTV infamously took a number of years to start playing any videos featuring black artists. (The rise of Michael Jackson was a major factor in the change in this area.) The sexualised portrayal of women in music videos also drew criticism – and has continued to do so. They can dehumanised women by reducing them to little more than attractive body parts as the Robin Thicke video for Blurred Lines exemplifies.

The 1990s saw the rise of the music video auteur, directors who developed more cohesive bodies of work. These pairings enhanced the credibility of both director and band when done well. The most prominent examples of these auteurs were Chris Cunningham, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher.

This video to Aphex Twin’s Come To Daddy, directed by Cunningham in 1997, demonstrates how images can be combined with music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Cunningham draws on imagery from horror films, and uses a bleak urban landscape to match the harsh sounds created by Aphex Twin, with the subordinated sci-fi elements of the narrative echoing the electronic music.

The music and visuals are both simultaneously futuristic and gritty. That this is a music video and not a short film is obvious in the way the sound and vision connect throughout without mirroring one another, with glitches in the vision matching the stammering rhythms.

Many of the features of this video – particularly blue filters and grotesque, distorted or disrupted representations of the human body – can be seen elsewhere in Cunningham’s work, creating a sense of connection between different pieces (for an interesting point of contrast, see his video for Madonna’s Frozen).

The music video moves online

What almost disappeared – after MTV switched its focus to reality TV – was serious academic analysis of the music video. There are only a small handful of researchers working in this area today. This is problematic because the music video is far from a dead media form, and is no less important in its popular and cultural impact than it was in the 1980s or 1990s. Videos have simply moved to different platforms and taken on new and diverse forms.

YouTube is now the primary location for music videos, with views in the tens of billions, making them one of the main ways music is consumed. Videos are also watched on streaming services, downloaded to personal devices, and can range anywhere from 3-minute clips to Lemonade’s one-hour long premiere on HBO, to Pharrell Williams’ continuous 24-hour music video Happy.

Music video’s migration from television to the internet has affected its content, aesthetics, and the way we think about pop stardom. As critic Maura Edmond points out, music video has been heavily influenced by the media convergence and web 2.0 practices of the last ten years.

In particular, the music video’s economic rationale, distribution, exhibition, reception practices and aesthetics have all been affected by its shift from television to the Internet.

While videos still appear on dedicated music channels and countdown TV shows, integrated distribution and exhibition structures such as syndicated hosting site Vevo are now the norm, as is the supply of music videos on-demand through search functions on YouTube, Tidal and Vimeo. This means participatory culture practices such as sharing, liking, commenting, making, and remaking of videos, are more commonplace for the average music fan.

Edmond argues music videos are the most-watched and “spread” content across YouTube because they fit the aesthetic demands of online video clip culture – they are short, catchy, and visually striking – and are therefore perfect viral content or spreadable media.

Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know is a good example of the way a simple low-fi video can go viral.

Meanwhile, comedian Amy Schumer’s Milk Milk Lemonade shows how the parody video (a staple of YouTube culture) can look much like the real thing.

(See Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda for comparison).

This changing landscape has led to new trends in the style and aesthetics of music videos. Very high budget music videos continue to be made for those at the top of the star spectrum, and these increasingly emphasise bright colours or simple colour schemes that translate as well to small screens as large ones (see, for example, Taylor Swift’s Bad Blood).

An example of how this type of aesthetic (although not at the high end of the budget scale) can be used in creative and political ways is MIA’s Borders.

This self-directed video has stark, but beautifully framed and affecting images that use the bodies of actual refugees to illustrate MIA’s take on the current crisis in Europe.

In one shot, the lurid gold of hypothermia blankets calls to mind the greatest wealth of the West while covering the bodies of those rejected by it. This connects with the lyrics, which ask for an honest evaluation of our society’s values in relation to refugees.

A new lo-fi aesthetic

Still, overall budgets for music videos are down. For this reason, and due to technological advances, more bands are making their own lo-fi videos. In turn, even artists who have no need to make cheap videos are drawing on this lo-fi aesthetic to make an impact.

Kayne West’s video for Only One, for instance, was shot entirely on a phone camera, giving it a DIY, home-movie style well-suited to a song about his daughter. The cutting-edge filmmaker and music video auteur Michel Gondry is the director of this clip.

This changed landscape for music video aesthetics also means shifting narratives of pop music celebrity and stardom. Music videos are the primary place now for selling a musician and their music.

With the new accessibility provided by search engines and video streaming sites, they are a constantly available link to the star presence. This makes it interesting when artists decide not to be in their videos, as Sia does in most of her clips, which often feature teenage dancer Maddie Ziegler, and Justin Beiber did with most recent album Purpose.

Beiber released a series of dance clips to accompany Purpose, in collaboration with young choreographer Parris Goebel from New Zealand. The clips for PURPOSE: The Movement were released one at a time, on the hour, every hour, on November 14 2015, but can now be watched as a continuous 40-minute dance film or visual album. It has been nominated at this year’s MTV awards in the Breakthrough Long Form category.

Beiber’s removal of himself from these clips, and Goebel’s free reign on choreography and direction speak to the way music video culture is interacting with other YouTube genres, particularly in relation to dance music and choreography. (See popular choreographer Tricia Miranda’s video for Rihanna’s Bitch Better Have My Money as an example).

The video for the lead single Sorry (nominated in three categories at the MTV awards), is extremely simple, featuring just Goebel and her brightly costumed dance crew performing to Beiber’s vocals in a blank, white, infinity space.

The immense popularity of this video is because this simplicity allows the incredible choreography to shine, rather than relying on Beiber’s star presence. It also attracts a diverse audience outside of Beiber’s dedicated tween fan base, including dance fans and Goebel followers who can watch, rewatch, learn and share the choreography.

While PURPOSE: The Movement is a triumph for Goebel, who has also worked with Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez and Janet Jackson, the popularity of Sorry of course still ultimately promotes Beiber and his music. It is therefore a clever move by Beiber to diversify his fan base and star image through non-traditional means.

As a pop star who was first discovered on YouTube, Beiber is a musician made in the click, like and share era. Purpose was also his “growing up” album as he attempted to put numerous bad-boy image problems behind him. Releasing a dance film that takes the spotlight off himself works with the album’s theme of humility and is part of this rebranding.

As music videos continue to evolve they are influenced by, and influence, other visual art forms. For many people now, they are inseparable from the very experience of music.

They are a place of creative experimentation and an opportunity for film-makers to cut their teeth. They are a key platform for artists to tell us something about who they think they are.

Given the purposes they can fulfil, more thoughtful analysis of them (beyond the frequent outrages that controversial videos can produce) would be good to see.

The MTV music video awards will air on Foxtel in Australia on Monday August 29.