First, some definitions: I once described music video as sound and image devoted to selling a song, but now I think it’s mostly an audiovisual object that draws our attention to the soundtrack. Or better still: it’s an object we recognize as such. And if “lyric videos” were originally designed to sell the song before the release of the “official,” now I fold in text and moving media that focuses on a soundtrack. Examining lyric videos can teach us more about audiovisual media generally.
I've become devoted to prosumer mashups of period romance films accompanied by Taylor Swift songs with Spanish subtitles streamed on YouTube. Why? YouTube’s algorithm discovered I enjoyed them and started feeding me links. This genre, which started in the early 2000s, is otherwise hard to find—the titles often simply list characters’ first names (e.g., “Jo and Laurie”).
These mashups feature the star and her paramour, walking together, kissing, or dancing. They lack the sturdiness—the sense of craft, line, and form—that encourage multiple viewings, but the first few have given me some of my most affectively rich experiences of media. The glossy film excerpts look fabulous, but because they’re disjunct edit poorly. The performers don’t move in perfect sync with the songs. Each cut destabilizes me, and then I wait for the song to fill in the faces. Within these confines I seek a connection—and for an instant it’s there—in a glance or head-turn. Suddenly the music colors the characters and I witness an intense emotion I wish I could possess. I assume I share this sensation but have the best access to it; its sharpness would break the arc of an actor’s performance across a scene. The actors also can’t hear the song, and the song drives the experience. A different song, color grade, or edit would suggest a different mode of inhabiting the world.
Essenciais Swift has produced some of the most beautiful mashups. My favorite, “August,” a setting of Call Me By Your Name, is tainted by the Armie Hammer scandal, so readers may choose to watch others, including of Bridgerton or 500 Days of Summer. In all of these the actors’ expressions and gestures reflect beautiful, refined, and often romantic emotions. But the incompletely witnessed rupture against unfolding processes suggest beauty is continuously lost, tossed into the past. And the text creates additional losses. I've claimed that, in music-videos, lyrics fragment into isolated totems. The yellow Spanish subtitles unfold as a constant, dogmatic partner. They seem the most prescient—they’re marking some upcoming point—both unavailable to me (as a non-native speaker) and to the performers. Past, present, and future are all out of reach unless I can hold onto these tiny shards and find them again in my life.
To come to a better understanding I run experiments. Is it the yellow of the subtitles, the language? (Yes: yellow, not white; Spanish, not English or Chinese.) The text’s placement? (Yes, not center frame—these can suggest characters’ thoughts.) The period costumes and settings? (Yes, not contemporary.) The actors? (Yes, not Gone Girl’s opaque Rosamund Pike—the song embosses these actors’ open, chiseled faces.) The singing? (Yes, not Lana del Rey or Billie Eilish.) The singing? Now I see Swift’s craft more fully. It’s blank, beautiful, empty, yet fragile, like the performers and the subtitles; she could make lovely ASMR recordings.
Recent neuroscience research can enrich my understanding. Am I tickling the parietal lobe, a part of the brain that specializes in processing non-native language? Or the superior colliculus? This part of the thalmus amplifies indistinct or confusing sensory signals that are equal. Do these boosts enhance my aesthetic experience? It’d be great for us to make and speak about these enigmatic clips and carry their heightened moments into our lives.