Video [music video].
- John Richardson
In their relationship to music, the terms “video” and “music video” are used primarily to refer to a form of short film, whose soundtrack exclusively or predominantly consists of a popular song, its origins intended for television presentation with the purpose of promoting a recording of the song. Since the early 1980s, especially with the advent of MTV in 1981, music videos have been integral to the marketing procedures of popular music. In the early 21st century they spread to new media, including computers and portable smart phones. Despite their name, music videos, or video clips, were initially produced using traditional celluloid film technology and transformed to electronic media in the post-production process. In the 2000s the production process moved toward digital filming technology, and the use of CGI (computer-generated imagery) in post-production became increasingly prevalent. More than simply marketing devices, music videos in the early 2000s became commercial products and aesthetic objects in their own right: they were viewed in the form of DVD collections, television shows, and such websites as YouTube, in much the same way as sound recordings.
The predecessors of music video in its early 21st-century form can be traced back to the experiments to synchronize film with recorded sound that began in the earliest days of film. These experiments also included forms governed by the primary determinant distinguishing music video from narrative film music: the use of the film medium for visual illustration of songs as opposed to the film music practice of providing music to accompany visual narration. Thus in the 1910s and 1920s silent “song-plug” films were produced that were presented with live performances of the songs that they illustrated. An additional significant precursor of music videos starting in the late 1920s are the song numbers of film musicals, which resemble music videos inasmuch as many of the most popular videos have been song and dance numbers set to popular music, and because an element of fantasy is found in both forms. The synchronization of action to pre-recorded music soundtracks in animated films is a further important precursor. Such films were produced by the German filmmaker Oskar von Fischinger from 1921, and this technique was popularized in Disney's series of Silly Symphonies short films (from 1929) and the full-length animation Fantasia (1940). During the 1930s and 1940s a great number of musical short films were produced, each featuring one or two songs by a popular artist and intended as preludes to the main feature film in cinemas. In the 1940s “visual jukebox” films under the designation Panoram Soundies were produced in the United States, followed in the 1960s by the French color film jukebox Scopitone. Other predecessors of and possible influences on music video include such experimental films as Fernand Léger's Ballet mécanique (1924), with music by Georges Antheil, and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), whose highly rhythmic editing style closely resembles many a music video. Following on from the tradition of the film musical, the images and sounds of “youth films” starting in the 1950s certainly influenced the audiovisual style of some music videos. The techniques of dramatizing popular songs on television, notably on the 1950s American show “Your Hit Parade,” were an additional influence. Avant-garde video art starting in the 1960s is thought by several commentators to have influenced the aesthetic style of music videos, as well as stylistic incorporations from such earlier artistic movements as surrealism.
The expanding pop culture of the 1960s furthered the development of new conventions concerning the visualization of rock music, not least through the influence of the Beatles films directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965). The Beatles, as well as other British groups, also produced early examples of “promo films” promoting particular songs (e.g., “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”) intended for television presentation and featuring many of the formal characteristics typical of later videos; these, however, did not attract any wider attention or achieve tangible commercial effects. The impact of Elvis Presley's film musicals in United States was comparable, although this was more in terms of the image of the star performer than the way the visuals were edited to music. The first video alleged to have had a substantial influence on sales of a song was the clip produced by Jon Roseman and Bruce Gowers for Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975; for that reason, as well as for its then innovative use of visual special effects, it is often cited as the first music video. Following this example, during the second half of the 1970s an increasing number of video clips were produced, notably by artists with a marked emphasis on visual image elements, such as David Bowie in the United Kingdom and Devo in the United States. Frank Zappa produced a number of film shorts, including Inca Roads (1974) and City of Tiny Lites (1979), which employed the avant-garde technique of stop animation. Something similar is found in Peter Gabriel's acclaimed “Sledgehammer” video, produced in 1986 by Stephen Johnson in collaboration with Nick Park of Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay. The animation technique known as rotoscoping, which involves tracing outlines from filmed images, is found in several early videos, notably the Norwegian group A-Ha's “Take on me” (dir. S. Barron, 1985).
Music video proper emerged in the early 1980s as a routine marketing technique for popular music. Its development as a form was closely connected to corresponding technological and demographic changes. Satellite and cable technology had enabled the establishment of specialized commercial television channels aimed at particular segments of the audience, known as narrowcasting. This technology was used for the dissemination of music video to a pop and rock audience whose relationship with the medium of television had grown less antagonistic than it had been in the earlier days of rock history. MTV, the first 24-hour music video cable channel, was launched in the United States on 1 August 1981. Its impact as a promotional tool was allegedly demonstrated by such phenomena as the success of British “new wave”, “new romantic,” and “synth pop” styles in the United States. Music video was rapidly established as a regular element in the marketing of popular music. Production budgets and aesthetic ambitions soon increased, an illustrative example being the extravagant 13-minute video produced for Michael Jackson's “Thriller” (dir. J. Landis, Epic Records, 1982). MTV was followed by other cable and satellite video services, such as VH-1 (1985) in the United States and Music Box (1984), MTV Europe (1987), the Power Station (1990), and the Voice (2004) in various European countries.
The technological shift since the late 1990s toward distribution via the internet and high-speed wireless communication has led to some noticeable transformations in the patterns of production and consumption associated with music videos. Such social networking sites as YouTube have become a primary channel for distributing the promotional material of popular artists, including music videos. This direction has accelerated as a result of record industry involvement in this mode of distribution. The same is true of Apple's iTunes, which in the early 2010s was selling music videos for consumption on a variety of media, from personal computers to cell phones. Other platforms and operating systems were offering similar availability. Despite the primary mode of music video distribution shifting to the internet, MTV, the cable channel that instigated the music video boom of the 1980s, has itself moved toward more lucrative forms of programming, notably reality television. Robbie Williams’ album Reality killed the video star (Virgin, 2009) comments on this turn toward reality television in much the same way as the Buggles’ song “Video killed the radio star” (dir. R. Malcahy, Island, 1979)—the video of which was the first to be shown on MTV—announced the birth of the era of music videos. It is worth noting that during the early 21st century music video aesthetics were permeating other audiovisual forms, including the editing style of feature films, video games, live performances, and such online forms as fan videos and mash-ups.
A small number of performing artists have made a significant cultural impact on the development of music videos. Most of these have extended the song and dance tradition of film musicals. Numerous mainstream pop artists in North America belong to this group, including Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson in the 1980s; Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Pink, and Justin Timberlake in the 1990s; and Katy Perry, Rihanna, Beyoncé Knowles, and Lady Gaga in the 2000s. Aside from mainstream pop, visually orientated performers, including Björk, Peter Gabriel, and Gorillaz (fronted by Blur's Damon Albarn), collaborating with recognized visual artists, have had a significant impact on music video aesthetics. Music videos have also been an important distribution and marketing device to artists working in such genres as rap, alternative rock, electronic dance music, metal, and punk.
Since the visual dimension of music video is created with the purpose of visualizing a popular song, its formal disposition tends bear a close relation to the structural aspects of song form. Most of the musicological research on music videos supports the contention that they take as their starting point the structures of the pre-existing songs. Videos are built around the verses, choruses, and bridges, lower-level phrase structures, and in many cases individual beats of songs. Images respond to the rhythms of the music but are never fully determined by them. Typically the relationship is more flexible and dynamic. Rhythm is not the only relevant factor, however. Visual images may also be shaped in more indeterminate ways by the melodic lines, timbres, harmonic textures, and the general affective tone of the music, as well as by the linguistic imagery and semantic content of song lyrics. The centrality of the image of the star performer is a further factor that should not be overlooked. The star often becomes an idée fixe in the visual palette employed by the director. Often the entire focus of a video will be the director's representations of a performer's star identity. So prevalent is this modus operandi that the effects of challenging it—for example, in videos by Gorillaz, Aphex Twin, and George Michael—are striking.
Visual narration is sometimes based on narrative elements in the words of the song, but generally narration in a video tends to be radically condensed and is rather fragmentary. A second important category of visual content is the one constituted by the imagery of musical performance, which is often set in surroundings simulating the conventions of stage performance of rock and pop music. In addition to visual narrative and performance images, many videos feature a rapidly shifting montage of more or less coherent images not immediately relatable to the words of the song; this type of visual material (“dreamlike visuals”) has come to be regarded as typical and bears a conspicuous similarity to the techniques of surrealist visual artists working several decades earlier. Animation and technical special effects are often used to create striking and unusual images. Visual thematics are often strongly influenced by conventional genre norms in different popular genres, such as the gothic horror imagery common in heavy metal videos or the use of “realistic” street images in videos featuring artists who aspire to established notions of rock authenticity. In addition, visual quotations from various areas of popular culture—film, television, advertising—as well as from high art, are common.
Research on music videos in the 1980s was largely instigated by E. Ann Kaplan's pathbreaking work. Several aspects of her writing are worthy of mention. First, she theorizes music videos in relation to then popular psychoanalytical theories of spectatorship in the field of film studies. Her understanding of the visual dimension of music videos allows her to pay close attention to theories of media flow, the analysis of visual style, and matters of mise-en-scène. Kaplan's writing pays close attention to gender representation, which she theorizes by means of a conceptual apparatus drawing on Laura Mulvey's writing on the “scopophilic” gaze (implying voyeurism) and Lacanian psychoanalytical theory. Especially impressive is her analysis of Madonna: she describes her as a new type of gutsy female performer whose ambiguous representation in videos both affirms and subverts conventional gender positions. Kaplan's writing on gender representation in music videos set a benchmark for numerous subsequent studies. She is, furthermore, the first scholar to posit a relationship between avant-garde forms and those found in commercial videos. She theorizes this relationship as arising from a postmodernist sensibility, which collapses the boundaries between high and low cultural forms. Most controversial about Kaplan's writing is her belief that videos are intrinsically postmodern. In comparison to other visual media forms, she argues, videos broke established codes of linear visual narration and thematized these codes in a self-reflexive way. In her view, this produces a free-play of blank signifiers (implying pastiche more than parody) that is understood to be symptomatic of the fragmented postmodern condition while offering an implicit critique of conventional audiovisual forms. Writing in the early 1990s, Andrew Goodwin contested this view, while also taking issue, justifiably, with Kaplan's relative neglect of sound. To concentrate solely on these deficiencies, however, is to overlook her contribution in the other areas mentioned above. It is true that she categorizes all videos on one level as postmodern, but she also classes them according to a more nuanced taxonomy as belonging to the categories romantic, socially conscious, nihilist, classical and postmodernist. Postmodernism in this theorization is a style among others.
Goodwin's own writing claims to offer a musicology of the image, but in fact he does not go as far as later writers in addressing the roll of sound in shaping our perception of visual images and vice versa. This is due to the survey-like approach of his writing, which rarely allows him to comment on music video in any more than a few rows of text. Nevertheless, he does shift the emphasis toward a bimodal understanding of the form that is rooted in contextualized discussions of cultural forms. What is more, he complicates existing theorizations of visual incorporation in music videos by adding to postmodern pastiche the categories social criticism, self-reflexive parody, parody, promotion, and homage. Goodwin's attention to the attempts of directors and musicians alike to visualize music added an important dimension to the writing on the subject. The appropriateness of his use of the term “synaesthesia” as the means by which such visualization is realized, however, has been debated.
Since 2000 a certain trend in the research on music videos belies their oft-reported diminishing status as a cultural form. A unifying feature of this writing is a concentration on close readings of individual music videos as a means of accounting for how they achieve their expressive effects. Most of this work does not assume videos to be autonomous aesthetic objects, however, but rather views them instead as operating as a node within a complex field of intertextual and cultural relations. This research typically pays closer attention to how individual viewers and listeners experience videos.
Nicholas Cook discusses music videos as part of a broader theorization of audiovisual culture that attends to complex construction of meanings in videos and the different meanings they produce in different audience groups. A key concept in his theoretical apparatus is what he calls emergent meanings: those arising from moment-to-moment combinations of sound and visuals in specific audiovisual configurations. Primarily, however, Cook seeks to extend Goodwin's call for a musicology of the image by arguing that musical meanings are primary, and that these are essentially embellished in song texts and visual imagery. He takes as his example Madonna's “Material Girl,” a video Kaplan discusses, and provides an alternative reading that is formally rigorous in its attention to musical detail. The musicological rigor of Cook's analysis is conspicuous, although his assumption of musical primacy to some extent determines the outcome of his analyses. He nevertheless offers a credible example of what a musicology of the image might look like.
Stan Hawkins’ theoretical models of audiovisual analysis are critically distanced from Kaplan's work on spectatorship, while the visual positioning and posturing of artists before the camera receives more detailed analysis than that found in Cook's work. Hawkins goes further than Kaplan when addressing musical signification by showing how the visual text correlates with concomitant musical gestures and meanings. Close attention to rhythm, timbre, texture, melody, and harmony informs Hawkins’ analytic studies, as well as a discursive approach to cultural identity, especially with respect to gender and ethnicity. The cultural construction of gender identities and issues of audiovisual masquerade are among the main themes explored in his analytical work. In contrast to such musicologists as Cook, who concentrate on musical continuities and occasional discrepancies within them, Hawkins’ writing concentrates more on significant details and their intertextual points of reference. A further difference is how Hawkins balances his attention equally between visual performances, song texts, musical sound, and cultural context. No single element is assumed to be primary.
Carol Vernallis’ writing is less musicological than that of Hawkins. Instead, it pays close attention to the editing techniques of video producers and how these shape our understanding of musical sounds. A central claim of her work is that the various elements of music videos—music, lyrics, visual montage, and showcasing of the star—vie for prominence, leaving audiences at a loss to predict how these should be weighted. This element of competition ensures that an aspect of indeterminacy is always present in our interpretations of videos. In this way, they are true to the semantic ambiguity of the songs on which they are based, whose lyrics rarely spell out clearly identifiable narrative propositions. Thus, all of the elements might be said to function similarly to the music, which carries the primary responsibility as a bearer of emotional content. The impression of open-endedness in videos can be understood as emancipatory to the extent that this transgresses media norms and highlights more fluid experiences.
An aspect that has come to the fore in the later interpretations of music videos is the extent to which intertextual exchange between different media is an unavoidable characteristic of the form. This includes the incorporation of imagery from other media forms in music videos, but conversely also concerns the myriad ways in which music video aesthetics are shaping other media forms. In this sense such a video as Britney Spears’ “Toxic” becomes a point of convergence for audiovisual conventions originating in gaming, science fiction cinema, physical comedy, and pornography. As Hawkins and John Richardson theorize, intertextuality is a useful route into readings of agency alongside musical subjectivity in “Toxic.” Notably, this video has been parodied by numerous other artists and users on such social networking sites as YouTube. In the 2010s this mobility between different media forms seemed typical of the state of the art by which videos were an object of exchange more than a fixed artistic work.
- M. Shore: The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video (London, 1984)
- E.A. Kaplan: Rocking around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism and Consumer Culture (New York, 1987)
- A. Goodwin: Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1992)
- S. Frith, A. Goodwin, and L. Grossberg, eds.: Sound and Vision: the Music Video Reader (New York, 1993)
- A. Björnberg: “Structural Relationships of Music and Images in Music Video,” Popular Music, xiii/1 (1994), 51–74
- N. Cook: Analysing Musical Multimedia (Oxford, 1998)
- S. Hawkins: Settling the Pop Score: Pop Texts and Identity Politics (Aldershot, 2002)
- C. Vernallis: Experiencing Music Videos: Aesthetics and Cultural Context (New York, 2004)
- R. Beebe and J. Middleton, eds.: Medium Cool: Music Videos from Soundies to Cellphones (Durham, 2007)
- S. Hawkins and J. Richardson: “Remodeling Britney Spears: Matters of Intoxication and Mediation,” Popular Music and Society, xxx (2007), 605–29
- J. Sexton: Music, Sound and Multimedia (Edinburgh, 2007)
- J. Richardson: “Plasticine Music: Surrealism in Peter Gabriel's ‘Sledgehammer’,” Peter Gabriel: from Genesis to Growing Up, ed. M. Drewett, S. Hill, and K. Kärki (Aldershot, 2010), 195–210
- J. Richardson: An Eye for Music: Popular Music and the Audiovisual Surreal (Oxford, 2011)