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Music Videos Make Claims to be Real Artistic Statements

Michael Jackson: Master of Music Videos - White House Photo Office
Often derided as sales gimmicks for songs, music videos have become controversial, experimental and challenging. They are now a serious, accepted art form.

Popularised on MTV and elsewhere during the 1980s, music videos are short films that accompany songs. They are basically a marketing/promotional tool, designed to exhibit a song in a visually interesting way, in the hope that more copies will be sold. However, they are older than the 80s.

Music videos might contain a mini-narrative to parallel song lyrics or enact them. They can use animation, abstracts, still image sequences, surrealism or be unconnected with the song. They may be documentary, or docu-drama. Some are deliberately mysterious; a few set out to be provocative.

Some History

Historians reckon ‘an illustrated song’ was the first video, in 1894, when sheet music publishers publicised “The Little Child”. Still images were projected to a screen while the song played. When talking movies arrived in the 1920s, shorts were created to promote, using contemporary (art deco) imagery and backgrounds against recordings of the artists singing.

Gradually over the next decade and more, cartoons like Loony Tunes were fashioned around songs or music and were distributed in movie theatres alongside main features. These inspired film-makers and performers to experiment further with film/sound techniques in songs and musical shows.

By 1964, UK band The Animals promoted their version of the US blues song, “House of the Rising Sun”, with a high quality, studio-shot film incorporating lip-synch technology, a set and choreographed moves. In the same year, The Beatles starred in their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, a mockumentary with musical sequences, comedic interludes and a loose structure.

Their follow up, Help! (1965) was shot in differing locations, linking songs in a fantasy journey, using unusual camera angles, extensive musical cross-cutting and blurred focus to generate interest in the soundtrack itself.

It became a template for pop artists experimenting in different ways to package their music, most notably the manufactured US band The Monkees. Between 1966-68, their TV series was sequences of filmed clips accompanying a range of pop-songs. By then, it had become the norm for bands and solo artists (including, for example, Procol Harum, Bob Dylan, The Kinks, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, The Who, The Troggs, The Rolling Stones and The Doors) to make a pop-video to accompany the launch of a new single. In Britain, the BBC’s long running TV series, Top of the Pops gave frequent and extensive exposure to thousands of these new music videos.

The 1970s, 80s and Beyond

In the 1970s, David Bowie was a leading exponent of music video, using film directors and photographers. Swedish stars Abba realised from the outset how the short visual-imaged film matching the song could enhance the appeal, telling the story in a stronger way than music alone. This was also the time of increasing domination by television as the most pervasive medium in people’s lives.

Into more recent years, the way the arts feed off and influence each other, can be traced in music videos such as Michael Jackson’s 1983 14 minute “Thriller”. Voted all-time most influential pop video, it owes much to classic Hollywood dance/musicals. Film maestro Martin Scorsese directed Jackson’s “Bad” in 1987, said to be influenced by the Sharks and Jets fight in the 1955 film of West Side Story. Madonna’s 1985 promo video for “Material Girl” is based on staging of “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Videos have become technically sophisticated, sometimes intercutting concert footage with stories with images with imaginative messages. In this sense, the music video has paralleled the development of the TV and cinema commercial in increasing complexity demanded by tech-savvy advertisers and viewers.

Michel Gondry

The current leading exponent of the art of music video is award-winning Frenchman, Michel Gondry. He is a prolific movie, music video and commercial director and imaginator, who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) which cemented his position as the world’s most inventive film-creator.

He has worked with Bjork, The White Stripes, The Chemical Brothers, Beck and Radiohead among others to produce song videos that stretch time and space. He has produced unique, non-derivative commercials for products from jeans to cigarettes.

He pioneered ‘bullet-time’ (now a registered term belonging to Warner Bros), or slow-mo, time-slicing, view-morphing and virtual cinematography. It’s digitally-enhanced simulation of variable speed, slow motion, accelerated time or time-lapse. It flexes space by using extreme camera angles.

For instance, in the music video of “Come Into My World” (2003), multiple Kylie Minogues are seen from the audience’s (camera) point of view simultaneously moving in a real-time street scene. Gondry’s transit of a slowed flying bullet and other previously impossible images have been developed in the Matrix film series (1999-2003) and in the video game genre.

Like photography, paintings, songs, films and plays, music videos are no different from other art forms. If they offend authority, sell a given product, are enjoyable as pieces of high-tech experiment, are mastering the power of the internet, then they have staked their claim as legitimate art in their own right.

First published at Suite 101, 12 June 2010.

Photo:  Michael Jackson: Master of Music Videos – White House Photo Office

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