Music Video Grows Up

Curator's Note

Music videos have matured, finally. While watching Grimes’ “Venus Fly” (discussed in Max Suechting’s post), I asked my students, who had read my brief history of aesthetics in music video, how they knew "Venus Fly" wasn’t created in the 80s. They noted it wasn’t just about the more open form and experimental aesthetics; it was the clip’s level of detail, partly enabled by digital technologies - look at those fingernails and dust motes! At times music videos have seemed to stagnate, regress, or die, only to re-emerge with new configurations.

Now changes seem to be transpiring on many levels. Beyoncé and Lemonade really have no models. Beyoncé showcases seventeen pieces, all different, all revealing multiple temperaments and modes of address, but somehow reflecting one person. Lemonade is the first fifty-minute music-video film, with minimal interstitial text. (I’ve tried to chase this work through three pieces including Beyoncé’s Lemonade: She Dreams in Both Worlds and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Avant-Garde Aesthetics, and Music Video: “The Past and the Future Merge to Meet Us Here”). The new Monáe album Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture], with its smaller budget and fewer personnel, also crosses into new territory. Though its throughline is thinner, each jewel-like video seems to project a deep understanding of and suggest new possibilities for individual formal parameters, like narrative, dance, editing, and timbre. Maybe we critics are also changing (seven scholars and I have forthcoming work on Emotion Picture in JSAM, some of it pedagogical). We too can now do creatively interlocking, responsive work.

Music videos can also now express a wider range of sentiments and place them into relation in novel ways. Childish Gambino’s "This Is America" and Stromae’s "Papaoutai" offer their protagonists two conflicting views of the world, one heavily bound by ideology ("Make your money" and "Mommy says ‘working is good’"), and one frighteningly outside of it, projecting threats of violence, abandonment, and death. The two perspectives shimmer. We viewers, beckoned into both realms, are called upon to resolve the distance. But we can’t, and clearly tarrying with the latter carries risks. In 1983, David Bowie made "Let’s Dance." Is this much older clip our closest, safer analogy? It seems quite distant.

And Joseph Kahn’s most recent videos for Taylor Swift like "Look What You Made Me Do" and "…Ready For It?" now possess the opulence and epic scope of Marvel films.  I’d claim his aesthetics are notched-up-one in delirium and euphoria. I haven't been that excited about VR, but the New Yorker's recent "Are We Already Living in Virtual Reality?" and a visit to Stanford's human-interaction VR lab has encouraged me to reassess my perspectives. Might director Joseph Kahn entertain making an interactive opera aria trailer with sets like Taylor Swift’s?  The viewer could choose to assume the body/identity of Plácido Domingo and sing against Renee Fleming or vice versa.  And why not include some popular music as interstitial material in there too? Our moment leaves me excited for our unclaimed futures.



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