It surely is the baseline pleasure that we take in watching a lyric video: that we can follow the lyrics on-screen as we listen to those same words uttered in song. That much is obvious. Somewhat less obvious, however, is that the pleasure of following the lyrics in these videos oftentimes also registers as a more direct affair, when in ‘following’ the lyrics we have to literally follow the actual words—in a concretely spatial sense—by tracking their location and locomotion across the screen.
Consider the mesmerizing official lyric video of Taylor Swift’s ‘exile’, featuring Bon Iver. Of the many things that lyric videos tend to remediate—handwritten notes, doodles, scrapbooks, album art, CD booklets, comics, graffiti, opening credits in movies—the video most notably foregrounds its intermedial kinship with concrete poetry. This means that ‘exile’ is less fixed on the expressive potentials of typographic form. Rather, like concrete poetry, it concentrates on the placement and arrangement of the visible word within typographic space.
Now the likes of Rudolf Arnheim would note that even a blank square harbors certain hidden structures that bestow expressive potentials upon specific spots and areas within it. Yet those potentials only multiply when put into ‘exile’: the screen space in which its lyrics are laid out is never like an empty, flat page to begin with. These lyrics hover over striking drone photography, a looping shot of a landscape bifurcated by a single path walked by a solitary figure in the woods. At once a God’s-eye view and a backdrop, this scene imbues the typographic space of the video with a dynamic sense of layering and dimension. It makes concrete our experience of the expressive ‘geography’ of the screen, and indeed also the inscriptive ‘geo’ (earth) ‘graphein’ (writing) occurring on-screen. It provides a map that heightens the valence of words according to where they appear.
The ensuing, playfully unpredictable dance of words on-screen makes clear, however, the extent to which following the lyrics here ultimately boils down to the ongoing movement of this ‘concrete poetry’, constantly shifting and rearranging itself across the central dividing vertical. Phrases and lines sometimes build into ‘stanzas’, but they still come and go, thus taking us here, then there; forward and back; from this side to that. And the resultant game of visual tag calls attention to yet further intermedial connections at work in ‘exile’: it remediates not only the back-and-forth duet between Swift and Justin Vernon, but also the experience of a specific kind of looking—as if we’re reading an optometrist’s chart, exercising our saccades, watching a match of pong—when we listen to this turn-based song with Tay-Tay and play eye-tennis to follow along.
Arnheim, Rudolf. 1974. Art and Visual Perception. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Killeen, Padraic. 2018. ‘Moving Words and Movable Type: Lyric Videos and Remediation.’ In Media Res, 3 October.
Ong, Walter. 1982. Orality and Literacy. London & New York: Methuen.