Column: The Critical Curmudgeon
The Imaginative Limits Of Music Videos
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 21:02
“Remember when MTV played real music?” It’s one of the FAQs of modern pop culture, an overused joke as well as a surefire way of guesstimating people’s ages. Reality TV rearing all of its unsightly heads basically did away with that brief era of music television, a rather ironic death when you consider that the start of the trend was “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Yet nowadays, thanks in large part to YouTube, music videos for singles and pre-releases have made a major rebound in visibility. The competition it generates between groups trying to invent more memorable videos has made a major impact on how listeners absorb their fresh jams. An entire subset of jobs in the music industry is created just by the writers and directors who set up these videos, the dancers and actors who star in them, and the behind-the-scenes folk who take ugly musicians and transform them into faces you’d look at for two minutes and 50 seconds. It all begs the question: what is this zany medium’s effect on the music itself? Sure, artists have been setting films to pop music since A Hard Day’s Night and Tommy, but how does the phenomenon of a major single having a video accompaniment impact the art?
The concept of a “music video” itself is intriguing for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the extra stimulation question: who first thought it was necessary? Personally, when I listen to music, I’m generally content doing just that. That’s why I have several bones to pick with the typical music video and its intrusion into the art form.
“Intrusion, you say? But surely you could simply turn the video off!” Well, fancy-pants hypothetical reader guy, it’s not that simple. A bad music video can totally derail a good song. When you hear a melody, your mind immediately begins making associations. Great songs will evoke a sensation, conjure up a face, or express an idea to you that you may not have been thinking of when you flicked the dial. But those associations can go very awry. George Harrison’s tune “Got My Mind Set on You” always made me think of summer, sunshine, driving by the shore and blasting the radio to a catchy jam. Then I accidentally saw the music video: it’s four minutes of Harrison awkwardly bobbing around a stuffy living room, the antique furniture dancing along. Now I can’t even hear it without thinking of that goddamn moose-head! A listener’s imagination is a powerful but impressionable thing—shouldn’t artists just leave it to them to interpret music and the scene it’s setting for them?
Maybe I’m too sensitive. Still, the more important question still remains: what can a music video say that the song itself cannot? When the White Stripes make their video for “Fell in Love With a Girl” entirely out of Legos, it’s neat, but does it add anything? When Beck films himself wandering around finding fold-in puzzles, how does that relate to the feel of Guerro? What does a Rube Goldberg machine contribute to OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass?” What do ginger kids stepping on landmines have to do with M.I.A’s “Born Free?” Setting your song as the backdrop to someone doing something wacky doesn’t heighten the art form any, it’s just sticking a key into a creative outlet that doesn’t apply to you. Musicians aren’t filmmakers, they’re musicians, gosh-darnit.
But I won’t generalize all music videos as tripe. In fact, many are actually done quite well! For instance, Harrison redeems himself with the video for “When We Was Fab,” a nostalgic and clever piece filmed with just one camera angle, where George plays a street performer letting the world pass him by. Lots of musicians have a vivid idea of the story they’re trying to tell when they set out on a project, and that type of vision often translates to a great and fitting vid. Besides, it’s all a matter of opinion anyway: you may feel a video perfectly captures the tone of song, and someone else might have had something totally different in mind. That’s the beauty of music! Everyone gets to let their mind’s eye go exploring.
So yes, musicians are intensely creative people capable of doing great things with video as well as sound. My only suggestion might be to let the listeners imagine on their own what a song might “look like” before making attachments. There’s something very special about how good music lets you figure out the rest for yourself.