Is the current so-called ‘golden age’ of music videos actually a dark age of regression for the form? Musings on the twenty-first century music video.
It is often stated (particularly on the internet) that the 2010s have become a golden age of sorts for music video, as a result of ever-heightening production values and the prevalence of more traditional narrative content and forms for the medium. I aim to investigate whether this claim can be held to be true, from both a theoretical and a historical perspective. I will examine how the MTV-style music video as a mainstream movement has more in common with the radical tradition of political modernism, and whether the 1980s–1990s music video is a more progressive form than the high-production value, high-concept videos of today, as well as at how trends today differ from historical ones. I will specifically look at music videos from the 80s–90s, and the 2010s as two separate periods during which music videos have played a significant role in the mainstream, through a marxist and feminist theoretical lens, which posits that Hollywood film tropes are oppressive, and that avant-garde and abstract film forms are the answer for cinema to avoid embodying such conservative ideologies.
When thinking of the term, ‘MTV-style music video’, no doubt images of grainy cinematography, non-linear, non-narrative filmmaking, and spacial dislocation come to mind. The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, the first music video to air on MTV, is typical of this style. The clip opens with the abstract image of a moon-like shape reflecting on shimmering water, over which appear puffs of smoke. We pull back to reveal a young girl switching on or tuning a large radio, before a monochrome, posterised mask-out of Buggles frontman, Trevor Horn, is superimposed over part of the screen. Throughout the video, we see the “‘post-classical’ breakdown of spatial continuity” that is so typical of the MTV style. We see moments of reverse motion, the same clip repeated over and over, frenetic camera work: throughout the runtime we see a clear rejection of traditional narrative structures and techniques.
The Buggles, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, 1981
The presence of screens throughout the video acts as a sort of mise-en-abyme foregrounding the song’s theme of new media killing off old media, but also serves as a Verfremdungseffekt that very clearly disrupts the narrative continuity, encouraging the viewer to confront the fact that they are watching a constructed, false reality. If we take ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as an archetypal MTV video, then I would argue that the format is positioned far closer to the modernist tradition of the avant-garde, and closer to what the likes of feminist scholar Mulvey, or filmmakers and theorists influenced by Brecht and Benjamin have described as ways of disrupting the linear time-space of (oppressive) Hollywood spectacle.
This trend of formal experimentation carried over into the 1990s, with videos such as Beck’s ‘Loser’ building on the styles and traditions of European avant-garde surrealism (watch below). The typical music video of the 1980s and 1990s, then, had more in common with such filmmakers as the American experimentalist Stan Brackhage, Luis Buñuel, and European new wave cinemas, than with the glossy cinema of the time. After all, the 1980s gave birth to the hardbody action hero, while the 1990s, despite the indie boom, also saw such spectacles as Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993), Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) and Mission: Impossible (Brian de Palma, 1996) triumph audiences and box offices. If one is to take the argument that modernist and avant-garde film forms are a more advanced film form than the Hollywood blockbuster (as the likes of Straub-Huillet may suggest), then surely the MTV style is the pinnacle of music video filmmaking, and indeed, the pinnacle of mainstream filmmaking in the 1980s and 90s.
Beck, ‘Loser’, 1993
Indeed, if one is to examine popular music videos of the 2010s, one might see a relatively more regressive form, more clearly in line with the visual and textual norms of mainstream cinema. Of course, the music industry has evolved in such a way that new wave pop-rock bands in the vein of The Buggles are no longer major players in pop culture, so I will instead focus on music videos made for such chart-topping artists as Taylor Swift.
Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ has amassed some two billion views on YouTube, and despite its butt-kicking female protagonists is perhaps a prime example of the conservative traditional aesthetic described by Laura Mulvey as the “male gaze”. Mulvey calls for feminist film forms that reject the pleasures of scopophilia, deamnding fresh systems that no longer render women objects and men subjects. Certainly there is no male protagonist present in the video, meaning there is no identification with the male lead for the audience, and the female characters act with agency, but the filmmakers do not “free the look of the camera into its materiality in time and space and the look of the audience into dialectic, passionate detachment” as Mulvey argues feminist films must. Throughout ‘Bad Blood’, the audience is presented with glossy production values, flashy visual effects and extravagant stunts with continuity editing and narrative linearity — a far cry from the small scale videos of the 1980s and 90s.
Taylor Swift, ‘Bad Blood ft. Kendrick Lamar’, 2015
The “dialectic, passionate detachment” Mulvey describes is effectively Brechtian. Brecht argues that theatre audiences must engage intellectually rather than affectively with texts, and be left to grapple for themselves with the opposing forces that may define the characters’ actions and situations. As I have described above, ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ is far closer to the radical form espoused by Marxist and feminist filmmakers and theorists. There is perhaps an aspect of irony here, given its release, and MTV’s popularity during the “greed is good” 1980s.
Returning to the original question of whether the 2010s are a dark age for music videos, it would certainly be easy to draw a conclusion that the current music video trends are far more conservative than those of the 1980s and 1990s. However, one must remember that the narrative music video is not a 21st century invention. Take for example, videos for Michael Jackson’s singles, ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Thriller’, both of which have clear narratives. In fact, the latter was directed by John Landis of American Werewolf in London fame. ‘Billie Jean’ is shot in a noir-fantasy-horror style, but it is ‘Thriller’ which is of more interest here. With a runtime of over 13 minutes, and what would appear to be location shooting, the video is effectively a short film with high production values, complete with werewolf costumes and special effects, predating the shorts made for the likes of Lana Del Rey and Beyoncé by decades. Certainly the movie theatre sequence could be read as a distancing device, and the dance sequences could disrupt the narrative continuity in a way that numbers in Hollywood musicals are said to do, although I would suggest that the latter are narratively integrated. Rather than featuring moments of radical experimentation, space and time continue to be linear throughout the video. Ultimately, then, I would argue that music video trends today do not differ significantly to those of the 1980s and 1990s.
Michael Jackson, Thriller, 1982
Certainly the aesthetic of low-fidelity analogue video or 8mm/16mm film is generally less prevalent, but other forms of visual experimentation have taken its place. A fantastic example would be Jay-Z’s video for ‘4:44’, which sees collage-style montage editing piecing together archive clips and freshly-shot footage in a mixed-media approach that does disrupt the spectacular pleasures of narrative unity. The interruption of time and space through vastly differing production values, and a line treading between documentary and abstract fiction or art filmmaking, serves to prevent the establishing of subject/object relationships between the viewer and the content, as the audience’s viewing experience is continuously disturbed. Sequences do not play out in full as one clip cuts to another, in often jarring ways, rejecting the more conservative, bourgeois style of continuity editing. The song may be about Jay-Z’s failings as a husband, but the video is also a post-modern portrait of blackness in the USA, and can be read as a dialectical approach to the situations that influenced the artist’s behaviour. From a feminist perspective, Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) does similar things with its allusions to Daughters of the Dust (Julie Dash, 1991), montage editing, and frequent moments of oppositional gaze.
JAY-Z, ‘4:44’, 2017.
The advent of high definition video means that music videos tend no longer to have the gritty VHS look which is so capable of disrupting illusions of reality. Technological advances have resulted in video in the twenty-first century relatively easily being made to look as good as 35mm film, and shooting styles have converged with those of mainstream cinema in parallel to these developments. Yet we are still seeing alternative and formally unique music videos appear, particularly amongst BAME and female artists, even beyond Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s projects. The likes of MIA and Björk continue to direct, or have directed for them, music videos which could be described as in the realms of of abstract art cinema or avant-garde surrealism respectively. And indeed, for all my attempts to describe ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ as radical filmmaking, there is still a clear to-be-looked-at-ness about the women in the clip, despite the girl protagonist. Virginia Hey’s character, dressed in a silver jumpsuit and sparkly wig, is placed on display in a transparent tube, marked as an ‘other’ to be visually consumed. Perhaps then, it could be said that budgetary and technological constraints played a role in the MTV aesthetic’s growth, as the content of the video does not necessarily reflect a political reading of tis forms.
Beyoncé, ‘All Night’, 2016
Ultimately there are formally interesting aspects to both the classic MTV music video and the contemporary video of the YouTube/Vevo era. The best-selling artists of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Michael Jackson, had the budgets to make narrative short films and music videos, as do the best selling artists of the 2010s. The landscape cannot be said to have changed so much, at least at the high end of the industry. However, technological advances have certainly made it easier to capture aesthetically pleasing, cinematic images at an ever lower cost, which has no doubt played a role in the gradual departure from the MTV aesthetic in even the lowest-budgeted music videos.