We might not be living in the golden age of MTV any more, but music videos still have an important place in our cultural landscape.
In the 90s directors like Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham were injecting millions of dollars into 5-minute segments. Michael and Janet Jackson's video for their 1995 track, Scream, is still the most expensive music video ever costing a reported $7 million. But today music channels are about as relevant as CDs, YouTube has replaced MTV, and people are more likely to watch a music video because a celebrity tweeted about it, then because they came across it whilst channel hopping. Yet music videos are becoming even more and more like films, it's not slowed down with the demise of music television.
Arguably, the primary purpose of a music video was taken over by social media a long time ago. These days, fans can gain direct access to artists via platforms like Twitter or Instagram, where their identities are meticulously shaped. Take One Direction, who have around 100 million Twitter followers between them and post around 20 painstakingly crafted and monitored tweets per day. Similarly, their Instagram feeds are inundated with black and white snaps of Harry Styles' favourite bands, Niall Horan riding an elephant in Thailand and Zayn catching fish. Social media offers a route to understanding an artist in the same way that music videos, TV interviews and shows like Top of the Pops were so integral to in the past. We don't need music videos to translate the identity of an artist, because we know so much about them already.
Considering this then, why are music videos still so enduringly popular? It's difficult to see how a 3-minute clip of Nicki Minaj fanning herself with some dollar bills is relevant to a generation whose experience and consumption of music has shifted to the point that music is mostly enjoyed whilst doing other things. We listen to Spotify whilst surfing the internet, we listen to tunes while getting on tube, walking down the street and doing our shopping. We know what musicians are doing because they tweet 24-7. Where exactly do music videos fit into that model?
One answer is interactivity. Earlier this month, Bjork announced that her video for Stonemilker would be made for virtual reality. Filmed for an Oculus Rift headset, she described the Arca collab as "almost more intimate than real life", if that is at all possible. Similarly, Azealia Banks just released her video for Wallace, which uses webcam technology to allow the viewer to insert their face into the video, and as you move, Azealia moves too. "I'm such a huge fan of technology and creating new ways of interacting and engaging with fans, so this collaboration was perfect for me," she says in the press release. "Music videos are as much of an art form as the music itself."
But even though we're starting to see these creative uses of technology, they're still not that common. There are other forms of interactivity, though. Most pop videos are made with their shareability in mind, and some are made with the sole intention of going viral (Rebecca Black, anyone?). Music videos that consciously play into viral marketing are a prime example of such a model moving with the times. These music videos are interactive in the sense that they move between hands very quickly, creating a back-and-forth experience that is consistent with the rapid pace of social media.
Music videos can be utilised to introduce interesting, underground or lesser-known concepts to the fore, take the recent Dev Hynes and Neneh Cherry video for He, She, Me, for example. The clip doubles up as a campaign film for Selfridges new gender-neutral pop-up store, and consequently rips up gender binaries by creating a stylish queer utopia of androgynous vogueing club kids. The music video gives the idea of gender fluidity an unashamed visibility, and in turn, renders gender norms dull and old-fashioned. It shows that music videos, like all of pop culture, are relevant in the sense that they are vessels for ideas that originate from the underground and bubble to the surface, changing minds and opinions as they go. Music videos are still useful for bringing such concepts into the mainstream.
As well as this, the digestible form of music videos make them a particularly engaging form of art. According to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span of a human being has decreased to 8 seconds (it was 12 seconds in 2000), which is one less second than a goldfish. So basically the quicker the better, these days, and watching a music video takes the same time as eating a slice of cake and it's twice as delicious. It's a perfect piece of art for the click-happy generation.
However, although the aforementioned ideas shed some light on the relevancy of music videos today, it's not as if every music video has now been reduced to superficial, marketing campaign or even an intended vehicle for a wider discussion. Music videos still exist for themselves and are still appreciated as an independent art form, like music itself. I didn't watch Kelela's hallucinatory anime visual creation for A Message or FKA Twigs' Japanese bondage-style routine for Pendulum and think they were great because I could share them or because they were short. They were simply fun to watch. It's always exciting to see your favourite track translated onto screen in increasingly new and extraordinary ways. Whilst the days of topless boy bands doing flips in the rain might be long gone, the music video continues to be one of the most enduring, popular and electrifying mediums existing in pop culture today.
Text Daisy Jones
- music video