Music Video and the Audiovisual Turn

Curator's Note

MTV's launch was thirty years ago. Music video has since undergone shifts in technologies and platforms. It has seen periods of intense cross-pollination with other media, financial booms and busts, and changing levels of audience engagement. While music videos hit a low point at the start of the new millenium, they have reemerged as a key driver of popular culture. This resurgence resembles MTV’s first moment: it’s again worth asking what music video can do and where it fits.

To really know music video we'd have to study this thirty-year history: we'd need to consider musical genres' cycles of maturation, auteurs' interests and influence, and the ways audiences use videos. By tracking the image's response to music's changing production practices, and vice versa, we begin to grasp a broader audiovisual turn. Comparison of the beginnings and the present might show vast differences in performance style, formal conceits, editing, depictions of space, the showcasing of new technologies-or it might not.

Today's music videos offer ways to understand the audiovisual turn, especially when we consider them as part of a media swirl that includes postclassical cinema, video games, commercials and YouTube. Music video may be changing: some videos suggest new forms of narrative, like Jonas Akerlund's video for Lady Gaga's "Telephone," Floria Sigismondi's video for Katy Perry's "E.T.,and Francis Lawrence's and Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance." These are made by transmedia directors who have returned to the genre after making films. While music video has long showcased technical devices, like the Quantel and the snorkel cam, Arev Manoukian's and Skrillex's "The Devil's Den" suggests what can be done with the Red Epic. Digital technologies make possible new formal conceits. Color sweeps across Romain Gavras's "No Church in the Wild." In Mark Pellington's "Skyscraper," haze and smoke become players.

Freer from censorship today, Gavras and Kanye ("No Church in the Wild") and Alan Ferguson and Rise Against ("Help Is on the Way") produce politically engaged clips. Matsoukas's and Beyonce's "Why Don't You Love Me" and Gibson's and Lady Gaga's "You and I" suggest new possibilities of representation. Interactive clips like Vincent Morisset's and Arcade Fire's "Sprawl II" extend the genre's boundaries. And prosumers' clips go further, suggesting that music video is simply a relation of sound and image we recognize as such.

Transmedia artists who gravitated to film when music video budgets were low have returned for love of the genre. Their knowledge informs today's music videos. 



Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I haven't thought much about music video, since it seemed like it both faded away (as MTV shifted toward reality and other programming) and also became ubiquitous ("MTV-style editing" was everywhere, etc.). It's interesting to think about the circumstances of its return to prominence.

My question, though, relating specifically to the clip here, is about science fiction. Since you're talking about the interrelation between film, video games, music video, and other media, I'm curious about how our conception of classical genre (such as horror, the Western, etc.) plays into this. Specifically, I'm wondering where you see science fiction (narratives, iconography, etc.) in this web of connections. Is the use of science fiction tropes in this video just the result of the song's lyrics/subject matter? Or is this a broader trend, and if so, has it changed over time?

Dear Tanine,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Music video's resurgence is due to many factors, including increased availability and bigger budgets. Today clips are dispersed across a number of commercial websites (Vevo, Hulu, Launch, MTV, Pitchfork), as well as YouTube. In the late 90s and early 00s funding dried up and directors fled for more lucrative gigs in films and commercials. But money has flowed back, both through the major’s support of Vevo and new opportunities for product placement within clips. Returning directors incorporate their cinematic and commercial experiences. Jonas Akerlund’s, Lady Gaga’s, and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” is an amalgam of a music video and something else—B movie, Tarantino-affair, Natural Born Killers, for example.


I've interviewed ET's director, Floria Sigismondi. The clip's sci-fi images refer to the lyrics (Boy, you're an alien…extraterrestrial) and the song's arrangement. I like your question concerning which genres music videos draw upon. A few clips readily come to mind for each that you mention, including the western, horror and sci-fi. To respond to popular music's most frequent subjects, romance and melodrama tend to become music video's predominant themes. I haven't seen a noticeable uptick in sci-fi oriented videos. And there are always precursors. Consider Hype Williams's and Missy Elliott's "Sock It 2 Me."  


Today's music videos showcase sophisticated narratives. Sigismondi’s “ET” has a density of causes that seems to exceed what we normally experience in a music video. Is it Kanye, the Wall-E doll, Perry, the deer, or the CD, which enables the sci-fi creatures to have sex and repopulate? The chain of Proppian helper agents is never made clear but the narrative still feels sensible. In a different way, Akerlund’s and Gaga’s “You and I” may present a wider range of characters than traditional music videos. In Rocking Around the Clock, Ann Kaplan identified “Madonna 1” and “Madonna 2” in “Papa Don’t Preach”: Madonna vacillates between two forms of identity that never integrate—a Seberg good girl working class type and a vamp. But the range of clips is much broader here. This is true too of Gaga's "You and I." The clip is about transgendered identity (freedom from censorship may have made more representations possible) and it’s richer than what we’ve seen before. Gaga is a fashionista-type Adams-family Morticia, a mermaid, a girl around the way, a male James Dean type, a horror monster (flash-frame), a dancing troll-like doll, a wood sprite and fairy queen. “Telephone”’s heightened storytelling is enabled by censorship’s near end. Stakes are high—poisonings, murder, sexual betrayal. The songs themselves might make narrative more possible. “Telephone” is more cellular and fragmented than the average pop song, facilitating more interrupted moments. With these short segments and interruptions, the work stretches as an archipelago, and only in retrospect seems peculiar. Why is Gaga wearing that leopard print and shimmying in front of the Jeep at night? And why is Beyoncé wearing that Sergeant Pepper’s military dress in her hotel room, hopping up and down as if she were a windup doll, while behind her we’re catching glimpses of kitschy Louis XIV furniture and cinderblock walls? And of course there’s Gaga’s hair in rollers fashioned from coke cans, and sunglasses made of lit cigarettes. The prison block is really a gay dance hall; “telephone for Lady Gaga” rings out. The harp in the soundtrack is very sweet, and its return may enable Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s getaway (the women and the credits outstrip the story).

Carol, I love this Katy Perry video. It exemplifies well the audiovisual turn/return of the music video as a vital form that bridges media industries, performers, technologies, creative-personnel in a swirl of transmedia significance - and as Tanine indiactes genres, especially sc-fi given the technological experimentation displayed so often by the music video genre. 

I have always loved the intimate experience music videos have provided me - it reminds me of the way I often enjoy trailers for movies more often than the movies, even though I know its not necessarily the same thing. But the tighter dramatic context of their forms does seem to allow viewers a different relationship to the song/story. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this relationship of spectatorship and music video? 

The images tend to be avant-garde and artistic but also very emotional and dramtic, which is enhanced by the song and the persona of the performer - the kind of story it seems to dramtize and performance it seems to simulate. I have found that music videos lend themselves to a more personal, intimate experience of music and image. This also relates to the history of avant-garde, art film, and experimental film.  Music videos are informed by a history of experimental video/film, which followed a history of sequencing to songs on the soundtrack in narrative film, especially after Blackboard Jungle and Scorceses Mean Streets.

Do you think the contemporary turn is similar to that historical/aesthetic turn in music video and film, or vice versa? And do you have any thoughts on how it might relate the personal, independent ideology of experimental/avant-garde/art film? I'm also thinking of the personal/intimate intensification provided by digitial/mobile technologies.

Dear John -

Charting the relation between independent and experimental art and music video would be a great project. In the 80s MTV and the record companies intentionally sought out artists to make videos. I heard that was how Matt Mahurin and Robert Longo were drawn into the field. Many directors I've interviewed producing music videos today are directly a part of or have very close connections with the artworld. Floria Sigismondi has made independent films. I've recently been drawn to the work of Brett Simon. Here's his MFA thesis and his music video for Snow Patrol. Melina Matsoukas references Keith Haring in her "Rude Boy" video. Jonas Akerlund's installations have been exhibited in museums.

Music video and intimacy feels like too big a topic for a 400-word post! Popular music and other musical genres are often experienced as intimate. I find Beyonce's "If I Were a Boy" very intimate. But "Telephone" or Romain Gavras's "Bad Girls" stress different values. A colleague argued that music videos provide viewers with imagined communities. Has the mode of address changed with digital/mobile technologies? I think Beyoncé's "Videophone" interpellates a new type of spectator. 

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