Imagine the scene. You’ve heard that you’re favourite band are releasing your favourite song on their new album as a single. The big premiere is on MTV that night. You go round to a friend’s house (you haven’t got MTV – you’re a poor student), anticipation flowing through you like adrenaline, and then you see the video… and it’s the most boring, irrelevant crap you’ve ever seen.
You turn the TV off in frustration and curse whoever commissioned the video. Three months later it wins a Brit Award for Best video. Now this story may not necessarily be true (it is – “Wonderwall” Oasis) but illustrates well the capacity for music videos to cause a wide range of emotions from the public. Music Videos are something of an enigma in today’s society.
They have launched the careers of some of today’s biggest artists – Radiohead, Missy Elliot, Nirvana, strengthened the careers of other established artists – Michael Jackson, Madonna, George Michael, not to mention making names of directors such as Michael Bay, Spike Jonze and David Fincher as well as actors such as Jack Black, Courtney Cox and Liv Tyler, all of whom have gone on to great success within the movie industry. Despite this, there still seems to be a division of opinion about their importance. For some, they are a vital part of an artist’s image – an instant leg-up to notoriety and popularity.
For others, they are an irrelevant by-product of record company blanket marketing that half the population never see. The music video has had a long and complicated life. The roots of the music video date back to the 1930s and 40s, when a man named Max Fleischer created cartoons and put them to songs by Jazz musicians such as Louis Armstrong. These “soundies,” as they were called at the time, were played in jukeboxes located in restaurants, diners, and nightclubs, and helped to draw intrigued customers. The next people to combine songs with visuals were inevitably the Beatles.
They released a string of promo clips, for songs such as “Paperback Writer”, Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Hello, Goodbye”, as a showcase of their expanding minds. Of course they also made feature-length films, snippets of which were later turned into music videos by MTV in the 80’s. By this time, the potential of videos were beginning to be realised by people such as Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Peter Gabriel. These artists were pushing the boundaries of visual effects and censorship, creating cinematic events designed to garner as much publicity as possible.
However, these artists were still the exception rather than the rule. Even though 24. 2 Million people watched MTV in 1984, record companies were still unsure of it’s longevity, and unwilling to spend thousands on a video. Because of this, most videos were either a performance on stage or in a studio, with little or no creative input. Videos also tended to visualise the lyrics, as if the audience would be unable to understand the meaning of the song without it. Some people took this literally, such as Dire Straits video for “Romeo and Juliet” in which every line was acted out to the letter by the actors.
Patrick Gookin, an ex record company man now working for VH1, said: “Music Videos were highlighted as a good advertisement for an up and coming artist, and a vital part of their image. For this reason, especially with pop artists, most videos of this time were inoffensive and simplistic. We wanted the artist to appeal to the right people. ” While this practice undoubtedly still goes on, the general consensus of music videos shifted in the 90’s, and has carried on apace ever since.
Videos such as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer”, Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” and George Michael’s “Freedom” addressed issues such as sexuality, suicide and religion within a 3-minute pop video, which initially courted controversy, but eventually proved that a music video can be more than just an advertisement of an artist, but a soapbox for their views, as well as those of the director. Acclaimed Swedish director Jonas Akerlund – creator of videos such as “Smack My Bitch Up” by the Prodigy, and “My Favourite Game” by the Cardigans, both of which caused uproar, acknowledge the changing moods created by these seminal clips: When I first saw ‘Jeremy’, I was shocked and ecstatic, because it showed me that all the ideas I had for videos were becoming valid, because other people were having them too. ” For Dr Dre’s first solo single after leaving the hugely successful NWA, 1992’s “Nuttin’ but a g Thang”, he turned the concept into a mission statement, showing a day in the life of a ‘gangsta’. Complete with Black baseball caps, baggy jeans, barbecues, 40ozers and Blunts, scantily clad women and lowriders, the video became the blueprint for Gangsta rap, as well as launching the career of Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Everything encapsulated within this clip became a part of youth culture, and it was this image that was parodied in Chris Cunningham’s 1999 clip for “Windowlicker” by the Aphex Twin. Videos were becoming more influential, and this meant that if an artist really wanted theirs to stand out, they had to go past the ordinary. For Simply Red’s 1995 comeback single “Fairground”, the initial treatment was of singer Mick Hucknall performing the song to a girl in the crowd, with the camera then following on his way home, singing the song in the car while visualising the concert.
When he arrives home to his wife, we see she is the girl from the concert, and they share a loving embrace. However, when Hucknall saw the finished article he was not pleased: ” I thought, “Is that it? ” And then I realised, if I want people to pay attention to my record, I’ve got to do better than that! ” The video was re-shot, at a fairground with lots of colour and excitement, and the song went on to reach Number One and the video received a Brit Award nomination. As the medium was revolutionised, a new breed of directors came to the fore – ambitious, fearless and thinking in more cinematic terms than any of their predecessors.
People like Akerlund, Jonze, Hype Williams, Walter Stern, and Mark Romanek, and duos like Hammer and Tongs and Dom and Nick. Any artists looking to create a memorable promo clip – From The Chemical Brothers to Busta Rhymes to Nine Inch Nails – knew that these were the guys to call. As the directors were becoming as famous as the artists, having a certain Director for your video became a status symbol, almost more important than the video itself. Hip-Hop star Missy Elliot proves this when she describes how she chose Hype Williams for her first video, “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”: There was no debate… it had to be Hype. In the hip-hop world, if Hype Williams is directing your video, then you know you’ve made it, and so does everybody else”. The director’s image is becoming so important, that some artists are choosing to stick with the same director for most of their career, in order to reinforce their own. Supergrass always use Dom & Nick, Eminem favours Phillip G Atwell (often co-directing with Dr. Dre) and Depeche Mode have stuck with Anton Corbijn for a staggering 20 of their videos.
Over the years, a relationship develops between the protagonists, to the point that the director only needs to hear a snippet from the song to get an idea forming for a video. Also, the artist and record company are a lot more likely to trust their ideas, if initially they may seem a bit risky. The best example of this is the relationship between Chris Cunningham and the Aphex Twin, Richard d James. Warp records are known as an independent underground label, keen to subvert the status quo, a trait shared by many of its acts like Squarepusher, Autechre and the Aphex Twin.
Cunningham first came to the public consciousness with the disturbingly brilliant video for Aphex Twin’s 1997 single “Come to Daddy”. Depicting primary school children committing acts of vandalism on a broken down estate, all wearing masks of James’s face. The horrifying finale, featuring what looks like a demon screaming point blank into the face of an old lady, is so powerful that even the most unshakable of people are unnerved. The video became a springboard for the careers of both; turning Aphex Twin from an underground techno boffin into a sly musical genius, and Cunningham into the most sought after director.
The clip won a total of 11 awards, and persuaded artists such as Bjork, Leftfield and Madonna to come to him when they were looking for a big comeback video to push them back into the limelight. And that was Cunningham’s main commodity… exposure. When “… Daddy” first hit the screens, there was an all-round uproar. Unsurprisingly, many people condemned it, saying it’s graphic scenes were too much for the young teenagers who watch MTV, which eventually bowed to pressure and banished the video to a post-midnight screening slot. The reaction of James and Cunningham was telling: “It’s not scary; on the contrary, we found it quite funny. Cunningham also remarked that he believes “a Spice Girls video is more unsettling than Come To Daddy”.
Although Cunningham’s clips always to cause controversy, it would be wrong to label him a shock merchant. He is simply taking a cue from culture itself, and as the world we live in becomes more subversive, and more unshockable, he must find newer ways to make people think: “The most stupid thing that people can say is that I’m just trying to shock. Most things I don’t give a monkey’s about, but I find that really insulting. You get four months of hard work reduced down to that comment. And James is always quick to defend his friend: “He has a never-ending stream of brilliant ideas and gets so inside the music that he visually highlights parts you’d otherwise barely notice”. The success of his videos has allowed Cunningham to branch out into short films, with his first, “Flex” being soundtracked by, the Aphex Twin. While it’s true that videos are becoming more and more extravagant, obscure and downright weird, that is not to say that there are no conventional videos left. Within the pop market, cheesy, straightforward performance videos are alive and kicking.
Every video you’re likely to see from Westlife, Will Young, Gareth Gates and all other of their ilk, will still pander to the tried and tested formula of boy(s)- girl(s), love story. While there’s no definitive reason for this, I believe it comes back to image. The image these people want to portray is no different to those inoffensive, innocent pop videos of the 80’s. The main commodity of these acts is their attractiveness, and what better way to illustrate this than by showing them in with a love interest, doing all the things that all of their adoring teen and pre-teen fans want to be done to them.
Another important point is that because of the age of these fans, they couldn’t perform anything racier. When Take That came out with the video for “Sure” towards the end of their career, the slightly more sexually graphic nature of their video caused concern amongst parents, and only received a 30-second airing on Top of the Pops, who preferred to show their performance from the show a week later (Ironically, with the same raunchy dance routines).
The comparison with the videos for Boyzone’s “Love me for a reason”, which featured the boys dressed in all white, pulling choirboy poses in a church, a good indicator of the opposite direction’s the band’s fortunes were to take. All in all, videos no longer attempt to visualise the lyrics because the song itself is no longer the most important part. People are far more interested in using their videos as a signifier to their specific audience.
A debut video by any act can instantly tell you what kind of act they are, who they are aiming at and what, if anything, they are trying to say, without even needing to hear the song. Videos are commercials for the artists, and there are conventions for every genre of music, to the point where if a certain artist like the Prodigy were to make a simplistic video, it would cause more of a stir than if they were to make a shocking one.
If an artist is clever enough, they can use this to their advantage. Both Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears used explicit, sexually orientated videos to mark their shift to a more adult audience (” Dirrrty” and “I’m A Slave 4 U” respectively), and Michael Jackson’s poignant line from thriller ” I’m not like other guys” has taken on all new meaning. There is still a place for visualisation of lyrics wi5thin videos, it just depends what you want from them.