Last year marked a decade since the kinetic typographic video for Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” was released, marking the beginnings of a new visual genre. Since then, lyric videos have earned (and lost) their own MTV Video Music Award category, have become more stylistically complex, and have developed into an established part of many pop singles’s promotional material. Though many official lyric videos earn millions of views, they do not receive much media or academic attention compared to their ‘official’ music video counterparts perhaps due to their prioritization of the lyrics over other visual and promotional parameters of the song. While this emphasis on text may make the lyric video seem simple and straightforward, the genre’s participation within larger, complex genre systems allows it to draw inspiration from many other visual, literary, or kinetic genres, such as film, poetry, or even scrapbooking. These borrowings facilitate the communication of a song’s message through the visual presentation of the lyrics, all while maintaining the codes and conventions of the lyric video as a distinctive visual genre.
Indeed, one text can participate in multiple genre systems, and here I would like to focus my attention on how a lyric video also interacts with the larger musical genre system in which it participates. As artists across the genre spectrum release lyric videos, the codes and conventions of various musical genres such as pop, country, or rap, often differentiated primarily through musical characteristics, are translated onto the limiting parameters of the lyric video through visual elements such as fonts, colour schemes, movement, editing, and accompanying images.
As an example of this, the lyric video for Rita Ora’s 2019 pop single “Only Want You feat. 6lack” demonstrates how visual aesthetics in a lyric video can shift when an artist from a different musical genre is featured on a song. During Ora’s verses, the bright, white, and quasi-handwritten text stands out clearly against the darker, and sometimes murky, blue or pink background, and is paired with images that reflect single words and phrases like “minidress,” “phone,” or “to fill the space.” This sharply contrasts with the visualization of 6lack’s rap verse, where no images accompany the (now black) text at all; rather, his lyrics are reflected and layered multiple times in the background creating an even murkier backdrop. While the video as a whole remains a cohesive text, the contrast is striking, particularly when Ora returns with the bridge [2:20].
There are multiple ways in which a lyric video can visually indicate genre conventions through the presentation of the lyrics, beyond what is demonstrated in the above example. Things like word size, placement, movement, colour, depth, texture can impact how the viewer hears the song and interprets the lyrics. I encourage any fans of popular music to seek out lyric videos, in addition to the official music videos, to see how the music is visually represented and how the presentation of the text impacts their interpretation of the song.