Arts, Column

Analyzing the Visual Album Era

If I were a megastar in the music industry today—keeping in mind all the resources available at the fingertips of the rich and famous, of course—my first move would be to break the internet with earth-shattering artistry in the form of an unannounced visual album. Generating Beyonce-level buzz and in Frank Ocean-like fashion, I’d shock the world with an astoundingly intricate video created to accompany my killer new album.

Actually, If I’m being honest, my first move as a music mogul would be to buy a fleet of yachts—one for myself, and then one for each of my exotically-bred lap dogs that celebrities always seem to have too many of—just because I could. Or maybe I’d cause some kind of distasteful controversy over an overtly insensitive tweet I posted. Unfortunately for those advocating for the advancement of humankind and the betterment of society, that kind of inexplicably stupid thing seems to be pretty “in” with the celebrities these days.

But, I digress—that’s a fame-infused fantasy for a different day.

Instead, what I’ve been examining lately is what exactly music’s biggest names do to rack up global praise, and why exactly they do it. Publicity stunts and rumor mills aside, I’m primarily concerned with actual accomplishments—real, meaningful music content that contributes something pretty cool to the industry. In today’s increasingly competitive realm of music, it seems as though the attention-getter du jour is none other than the scintillating power and widespread implications of the coveted visual album.

It’s the masterful merging of two art forms, cinematography and music, and it dates back to the days when a certain British boy band was king across the globe. It was an age when the release of that same band’s incredibly influential comedy film A Hard Day’s Night garnered global praise for its unprecedented plot centered around an existing music album. It was a time in the ’60s when, believe it or not, the band’s signature moptop haircuts were actually regarded as attractive.

Pink Floyd and Prince released visual albums in their heyday. Michael Jackson’s iconic Thriller made history for being far longer than any music video needed to be. Now, after a rather extended hiatus from the forefront of the music industry, it seems visual albums are making a comeback.

In 2010, Kanye West—consumed at the time with the thought of a certain Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—made one entitled Runaway. Setting a widely-imitated precedent for artists who dabbled in the visual album after him, West included odd elements to evoke a stirring “what the heck?” response from viewers.

Beyonce blew the minds of music lovers across the globe with Lemonade, the symbolism and imagery present in the film regarded as visionary and admirable in the steadfast fight for two pressing social matters: the universal acceptance of feminist ideals, and the reclaiming of black culture. Far less intricate in art direction and costume design than Lemonade, but nonetheless regarded as evocative, was Frank Ocean’s Endless. The perfect gift for his patient fans after months of waiting for a new release, the visual album and accompanying LP caused a tsunami-wave of rejuvenated support and effusive praise for the musician in Aug. 2016.

What I want to know—and what I’m not sure if I’ll ever discover for certain—is whether these artists create visual albums (often a catalyst for conversation about complicated and deeply involved social issues) for a purpose, or for an attention-seeking stir to which their name may be so firmly affixed. Are these motives mutually exclusive, or do artists see an opportunity to open valuable conversation while simultaneously promoting their image? Is it their PR and production team that calls the shots scene-by-scene, or is the music star actively involved in the creative process and emotionally invested in the social issues addressed in their works?

In an industry in which profundity and spectacle are often preferred over genuine content and talent, it is nearly impossible to discern how fully certain artists adhere to the messages their public image is sending. It is unclear whether this new fad of churning out visual albums is an honest expression of artistry or a bandwagon attempt at a big break.

More importantly, if the end product entertains, does it even matter?

September 7, 2016