The Unsung Art of Music Videos
Childish Gambino’s music video for “This is America” has been dominating a lot of the pop culture conversation since its release, and not without reason. When it popped up in my YouTube suggestions, I watched it just because it was there. I usually prefer to listen to music without seeing its video, but I was interested in seeing how the video was going to live up to the title’s promise of showing America. It didn’t disappoint. The video’s director, Hiro Murai, a frequent director for Atlanta, went for an unromanticized but surreal take on the constant conversations about social issues that we’ve been having for the past several years. It felt like a mature evolution of Gambino’s “Freaks and Geeks” video. Whether or not you like the music itself, the video is a conscious reflection of the volatile state of modern America. It lays the blame for our broken state at the feet of the media, law enforcement, and skewed priorities. It’s also a meticulously shot video that’s at once austere and stylistically engorged with visual shorthand for social commentary. Basically, it’s pretty cool.
Music videos far too often fall to the wayside of pop culture. To most people, music videos are sometimes interesting when the videos are for artists they’re fans of. Otherwise, it’s just a thing to go along with the music. I personally feel like I never pay much attention to music videos in general until something like “This is America” comes along and we all take notice. There are always cool videos out there, of course, and some artists are specifically known for their extravagant must-see music videos. Even so, music videos are rarely discussed as art; they’re rarely held in the same regard as film, or even the music that the videos are made for. Outside of MTV’s Video Music Awards, music videos are ignored (even by MTV). As a self-proclaimed film junkie and voracious devourer of music, I want to look at some of the music videos and music video directors that really have pushed the form beyond just being music’s sidekick.
To start with, I should talk about Moody Blues’ promotional clip for their version of the song “Go Now,” released in 1964. This was released before music videos were a thing. Instead, at the time, bands would sometimes create video clips called filmed inserts that were used to promote the band on TV when the members couldn’t make in-person appearances on the various music showcase TV shows that existed at the time. “Go Now” was among the first to use purposefully artistic visual techniques to accompany the music and capture the mood of the song. “Go Now” is often noted as the video that laid the foundation for Queen’s 1975 “Bohemian Rhapsody” video, which is sometimes cited as the first example of the modern style of an MTV music video.
“Go Now” wasn’t the first music promo clip produced, but it did help to introduce the idea of using cinematic artistry to match the musical artistry of the song it was created for. The Beatles expanded upon this idea by incorporating more avant-garde and sometimes outright psychedelic influences. The Beatles decided to make full-on short films, often times as smaller segments within their larger films. “Paperback Writer“, “Penny Lane“, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” all proved the viability of creating promo clips with an increased scale, and more importantly, a sense of storytelling. They proved that music videos could carry the personality of the music artists and the video’s director. Those early promo clips proved that a well-made music video could leave an impression.
Of course, music videos came into their own on August 1, 1981, the day MTV launched. With that, music videos had a dedicated outlet that elevated their standing. Everyone was going to be watching music videos, and some artists took advantage of that to craft entire short films that were inseparable from the music that inspired it. There’s no real way to talk about music videos as an art without mentioning Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. Directed by veteran filmmaker John Landis and fueled by Jackson’s own desire to be a film star, the video defined perfection when it was released at the end of 1983. It was a legitimate short horror film, nearly 14 minutes long, that brought in seasoned actor, Vincent Price, for voiceover work that told a complete story. It also created an iconic dance and a signature look for Michael Jackson. People made a point of recording “Thriller” onto VHS tapes so they could watch it later and discuss it at length. To this day, it remains a vital part of the pop culture identity of America and American music. “Thriller” was a must-see music video milestone.
This period of ’80s and ’90s videos is also when directors became “known” for their work in this particular field. Some of the most important music video directors of this period were Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Both have made names for themselves in the larger film industry, but their work in music videos has been hailed as some of the most creative works out there. In 1994, Spike Jonze directed what would become two of his best known videos: “Sabotage” for the Beastie Boys, and “Buddy Holly” for Weezer. Both videos were highly acclaimed and lauded for being just as, if not more, interesting than the songs they were created for. With “Sabotage,” Jonze parodied ’70s cop shows like Starsky and Hutch by featuring the Beastie Boys as stars of a fictional cop show. It was a well-made video that matched the bombastic fun of the Beastie Boys.
However, Jonze’s most well-known music video is probably the video for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”. The video was an evolution of Nirvana’s earlier video for “In Bloom” and featured Weezer as a clean cut ’50s band edited into an episode of Happy Days. The editing was done to perfection, seamlessly integrating the modern band into a ’70s sitcom of ’50s culture. It wasn’t much of a storytelling video, but it was something that, again, took a lot of thought and care and showed that there was artistry to be found in music videos. In fact, both “Buddy Holly” and “Sabotage” are present in the Museum of Modern Art for their value as artistic milestones.
Michel Gondry was similarly known for surprising audiences with his music videos. Gondry directed one of my personal favorites videos, and one of the most visually striking videos I had ever seen, the video for The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl”. The video reconstructs Jack and Meg White out of countless Lego bricks, creating stark sets and images of black, red, and white. It’s a deeply intricate work of stop-motion animation that captures the manic mood of the song, but easily stands on its own as a simply impressive work of short filmmaking.
I feel like I should talk about Gorillaz here as they’re a band whose entire personality relies on music videos. However, they could easily fill out their own article. So, for now I’ll move on…
More recently, music videos were once again modernized and made relevant through the advent of YouTube and social media. There was a lot made when OK Go premiered their video for “Here it Goes Again” in 2006. It was a bit different because it premiered on YouTube. The fact that it existed on the Internet and came from Internet sensibilities would have a huge impact on its success, and the success of future music videos. Lately, the videos that are getting widespread attention have been the politically charged ones that resonate with social media movements and memes. It makes sense. SNL is relevant and recharged because of the sociopolitical climate, and music videos are drawing from that same source right now. “I’m Not Racist,” from Joyner Lucas, is a track that becomes better when heard as part of its subdued video, but Jay-Z’s video for “The Story of O.J.” is probably the biggest standout example of that outside of Gambino’s “This is America”.
“The Story of O.J.” is another video that truly uses the visual imagery to make a statement of its own rather than rely on just the music. Jay-Z’s character, Jaybo, plays on racist caricatures that were common in the early days of animation, referencing picaninny cartoons as a way of admonishing destructive trends in the Black community. It was hailed as one of the best music videos of 2017, and reminded anyone who watched it that music videos themselves could express something that the music itself couldn’t. That, in essence, is what the foremost of music videos accomplish.