Revisiting the Aesthetics of Protest: Socially Conscious Music Videos

Curator's Note

Music has always been a means of social and political commentary, yet it is the song lyrics, rather than a composition or an accompanying video, that contributes to creating memorable protest music to the largest extent. It seems, however, that contemporary music videos can function as “protest music videos” since they can modulate and expand the meaning of the song with political overtones, contrast the message emerging from the lyrics, and thus exceed the traditional function of music videos, namely that of advertising individual compositions. By examining various visual strategies used to create additional layers of meaning, it is possible to identify the markers of a distinctive aesthetic style present in a growing number of contemporary music videos (including Miguel’s "Told You So," Katy Perry’s "Chained to the Rhythm," and Beyoncé’s "Formation"), namely the aesthetic of protest.

The music video’s potential to function as a medium of protest has recently been developed in Justin Timberlake’s “Supplies” (dir. Dave Meyers, 2018), which is a good example of a big-budget mainstream music video employing a wide range of editing strategies to approach the main preoccupation of the video: a cry for change. In the video, the visuals at the same time amplify and go against the meaning emerging from the lyrics since the song about a “generous lover” providing her woman with all necessary supplies is accompanied by the socially-conscious imagery addressing the issues of information overload, police brutality, women’s and immigrants’ rights, as well as sustainability crisis in #TrumpsAmerica rather than anything else.

Characteristically for the medium, the video features multiple references to contemporary cultural artifacts, including films and TV shows, but in this case they go hand in hand with footage of anti-government protests and riots accompanied by a glitchy, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic aesthetic. However, the problem is that these visual strategies contribute to the effect of artist’s inauthenticity as the effects-filled scenes, large sets, and dozens of backup dancers are antithetical to the artist’s apparent intention of creating a contemporary protest music video. JT’s pro-Black attitude is perceived as “fake wokeness” (Rolli, Bryan) and his “Supplies” is branded “the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad of music videos,” commodifying protest culture. Certainly, “Supplies” leaves the audience disoriented and somehow overwhelmed by the barrage of information it intends to convey but maybe this is the only effective way to address the concerns about our current political climate and post-digital fatigue.

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