poetry or Commercial Salad of Images?
Music video is a many-faceted multi-discursive phenomenon. Some generally acknowledged "facts" about music video are that ...
i) music videos communicate
through TV-screen and TV-speakers
Michael Shore (1984: 98–99) concludes that Music video is
Music video artist
as a "modern mythic embodiment"
In one type of performance, the performer is not a performer anymore, he or she is a materialization of the commercial exhibitionist. He or she is a monger of their own body image, selling everything to be in the spotlight – selling voice, face, lifestyle, records, and so on. This commercial exhibitionist wants success and tries to evoke the charisma of stardom and sexuality, he or she wishes to embody dreams of celebrity, to be an icon, the center of procreative wishes.
Another type of performance in the music video universe is that of the televised bard. He or she is a modern bard singing banal lyrics using television as a medium. The televised bard is a singing storyteller who uses actual on-screen images instead of inner, personal images. Sometimes the televised bard acts in the story – sometimes he or she is far away and inserted images help him or her tell the story. The greatest televised bards create audio-visual poetry. They transform the banal story of the lyrics employing on-screen images to create a story about life and death. Too often, however, the televised bards only contemplates her or his own greatness and unfulfilled wishes.
The third type of performer is the electronic shaman. Sometimes the shaman is invisible and it is only her or his voice and rhythm that anchor the visuals. He or she often shifts between multiple shapes. At one moment the electronic shaman animates dead objects or have a two-dimensional alter egos (as in cartoon comics), seconds later he or she is shifting through time and so on. The electronic shaman is our guide on a spiritual journey through blipping images and magical attributes. And the electronic shaman promises that there is a hidden meaning in everything; he or she promises that we live in a magical, mythical reality. The electronic shaman’s voice and rhythm form the life-line that connects images and sound simultaneously creating new experiences and associations for those involved in the conscious-streaming journey outside time and space. The electronic shaman's performance, and the other two types of performance, can be seen in Cher's music video Believe (1998)
Cher also uses the electronic magic of aural effects (vocoder) on her voice to tell the audience about her own, and maybe also her younger soulsister’s unearthly pain. Cher’s voice and the "synthesized" modern dance rhythms anchor the dreamlike journey. It is also possible to see Cher as a televised bard, singing a story about life after love. An unhappy girl in the discotheque watches her ex-boyfriend against a backdrop of happy dancing people. Cher is a singing story-teller who visits this narrative world. She actively participates in the story only at its conclusion, when she changes places with the young girl.
In Believe Cher also promotes her record and her audiovisual style. She scavenges on feelings of teenage unhappiness, using these feelings as a commercial commodity. Cher aims to evoke the charisma of stardom and sexuality. Older now, she takes advertising help from the images of young healthy bodies. Thus she can be also seen as commercial exhibitionist.
In the first verse of Cher’s Believe to phrases "I can’t break through" and "so sad" there is a kind of visual echo made by special effects. I interpret this feature as a text-image metaphor. A text-illustration appears for example when the girl sits drinking as the lyrics intone "Sit around and wait for you". Some clichés in the video are quite amusing. For example, Cher has military pants when she is in the third verse when she forcefully repeats "I don’t need you anymore". A standard gimmick in film-making wherein the environment is made to mirror the feelings of the leading characters. The same kind of effects also occurs when the unhappy girl climbs to the rooftop and the rain of tears pours from the sky.
In the video there are two main visual motifs: one is Cher’s performance track, the other is the narrative track about the unhappy girl. Visual motifs are lightning effects from the discotheque and especially the light that is traveling between the girl and Cher.
Yet the concept does not have to consist of visual motifs: it could be a short silent movie accompanied by background music. A good example of this concept is Bruce Springsteen's I'm on fire (1986), in which a "grease monkey" falls in love with a female customer. The mechanic drives the customer's car to her house, but he lack the nerve to ring her doorbell and he walks away alone
on fire (1986)
Perceiving Music Videos
To give a simplified explanation, music video pictures can be a interpreted as a merging of three traditions of moving images: singing performance, visual story-telling, and the non-narration of modern art
The cinematic tradition of singing performance is as old as the first motion picture with sound - when Al Johnson sang Oh Mama 1927 in The Jazz Singer. From then this type of performance has continued in promotion pictures, musicals and concert documentaries. The basic formula behind the filmed performance is to take a popular singing performer and place him or her in a setting either literally suggested by the song’s lyrics or in one that mirrors the escapist pleasantries common to movie musicals.
Visual story-telling has developed from the early days of film-making into the film language of today. The basic rules of visual narration make it easy to follow a story as in a TV-soap: an outside shot on a window, inside shot presenting the room, shot of a man and woman, close shot on a face showing grief, etc. If it is possible to follow a filmed story without written text or aural cues (in speech, music or sound effects) then the film maker has used the grammar of visual narration.
In opposition to traditional visual narration, the non-narration of modern art has been developed by the representatives of the 20th-century art forms and created experimental movies like Fernand Leger and Dudley Murhpy’s Ballet Mecanique (1924) and Oscar Fishinger’s Composition in Blue (1934). These experimental achievements are nowadays a part of standard music video narration technique. In a music video clip collages, paraphrases, animated abstract art, computer graphics, and unexpected combinations of pictures may appear. The chock aesthetics in music videos can, from this point of view, be interpreted as a combination of the provocative modern art tradition and a cultural interpretation of the teenage rebellion.
Composition in Blue (1934)
Animated abstract art
Visual Music Video Styles
The same goes for Robert Miles' One and One (1996). The video exposes the vocalist, and the shots and the editing contain a passable portion which emphasizes strange artistic features. There is a kind of narrative inserted in the video with highlights of failure and dreams. Even Cher’s Believe is a standard clip. In relation to the visual traditions, the video is placed in the traditions of performance and visual narration.
The concept of the standard
clip is dynamic and has many variations. The vocalist might
and One (1996)
There are three pure forms
of visual tradition in music video: performance clip, narrative clip,
and art clip.
The performance can be of three types: song performance, dance performance and instrumental performance. Almost every music video includes song performance. Some videos combines song and dance performances. Michael Jackson’s videos often contain dance performance. Instrumental performance is not so common, but it occurs occasionally. Concert performance on stage with audience is so common that it has its own category, the concert clip.
Final Countdown (1994)
Europe's Final Countdown is mostly a Concert clip
Music video works in a similar
fashion using pictorial elements that function thematically. Pictorial
elements are the small parts into which a moving image may be divided
in - quick zooming in and out, short cuts, colors, shapes, movements,
settings, clothes, footage etc. The abstract qualities of these pictorial
elements assembled in thematic combinations create form. An introduction
often presents the basic pictorial elements, which will develop to visual
>> Read more about Abstract form in "Principles of Film Form" in Film Art: An Introduction with Tutorial CD-ROM
What is music video?
Scholars may sometime know too much and refer to their own perspective and specialty. Music video has its own conventions which do not necessarily follow those of cinema. For example, backlightning effects are often interpreted as a reference to film noir, although a more reasonable association is with the lightning conventions of live performance.
In music video, narrative relations are highly complex and meaning can be created from the individual audio-viewer’s musical personal musical taste to sophisticated intertextuality that uses multidiscursive phenomena of Western culture. For example George Michael’s video Killer/Papa Was A Rolling Stone(1993) illustrates the words of the lyrics with logotypes of well known consumer products. This feature plays on another form of intertextuality – illustrations of important words in the song lyrics is quite common in music video, especially rap videos. Thus the new words in the form of commodities’ logotypes become an innovative way to reuse this tradition. Some audio-viewers may identify with the commercialization of human feelings signaled by the video.
Was A Rolling Stone (1993)
I believe that music video is today its own form of art with its own traditions. I hope this form of art will get its own theory – not just old theories "amputated" to fit music video. I have tried to point to possible directions for studying music video.
Music video is not inherently uninteresting, trivial and dumb. Music video is interesting and fun; it always offers something to look at and something upon which we need to reflect
Andrew Goodwin (1992) Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture
Bordwel, David & Thompson, Kristin (2006) Film Art: An Introduction with Tutorial CD-ROM
Chion, Michel(1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen
Shore, Mikael:(1985) The Rolling stone book of Rockvideo
Ballet Mecanique Fernand Leger and Dudley Murhpy (1924) >> Wikipedia
Composition in Blue Oscar Fishinger (1934)
- Final Countdown (1994) Dir Arxel
This article was originally published in Muskiikin Sunta nr 2 1999 Special issue in English on Music videos, The Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology, University of Helsinki, Finland
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