POP MUSIC VIDEO CLIPS

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Toward A Definition

Pop music video clips--variously called "promo clips," "picture music," or just plain "videos"--made a substantial impact upon the public consciousness during the early 1980s. The medium, defined here to mean those several-minute filmlets accompanying pop songs as opposed to the various types of full-length video programs (e.g., extended concerts, documentaries, recapitulations of film/television appearance), acquired both its advocates and detractors in short order. The former group included director Zbigniew Rybczynski, who won an Academy Award in 1983 for his film short, Tango. Rybczynski then decided that he would no longer work in the film medium because he considered it to be defunct. He began working with video clips exclusively, offering the following rationale in the January 1985 issue of Music and Sound Output:

I believe now is a very interesting time. We are at the point of a big revolution in

video. Music video is the beginning of something very important in culture. There

is nothing more new in any other kind of art. Consider the (main) audience, young

people. They don't read anymore. They have only TV screens. This is the only

way to learn about the world or something about aesthetics. I don't think other

art exists for a really big audience. Nobody goes to art galleries. This is part of

the past. For the younger generation throughout the whole country, their only

contact with art is through music video.

 

Critics of the medium have justified their stance with a number of arguments, most of which seem to possess questionable merit.

(1) The crass commercialism characterizing both the content of the many clips as well as the mode of presentation. The form has been subverted of skilled admen to the point where it's hard to distinguish commercial from videos on TV and other television programs. But then what medium can lay claim to being completely free of such a charge.

(2) The inclinations of a significant portion of these clips to self indulgence and plain bad taste. It would be well here to keep in mind the 95 to 5 percent radio said to characterize all art forms; that is, the majority of creations are worthless and, in the best interests of a particular genre's image, soon forgotten. To pose a rhetorical question, is it fair to blame a Dickens novel for the presence of a bevy of "penny dreadfuls" in the publishing world of that era?

(3) Their omnipresence within our society. This, of course, bears no direct correlation with correlation with the relation aesthetic (or social) merits of the pop music video clip.

(4) Perhaps the most weighty criticism has been voiced by Eric Zorn, whose main point of contention is that the medium "threatens to rob us of the special images we conjure up to go with a song." He notes that more than a majority of MTV viewers recently sampled say they "play back" the video in their minds upon hearing a particular song on the radio. The proliferation of music videos, in short, threatens to produce an entire generation of people who will overlook the sublime, extremely personal element of music." (Newsweek, February 13, 1984, p. 16)

In response to Zorn's argument, it should be noted that pop music videos can bring out dimensions of a song otherwise lost to the listener. It would appear that this genre is merely the most recent outgrowth of the long developing symbiotic relationship between music and the visual image. Established precedents include passion plays, opera, ballet, and incidental music for dramatic presentations.

Nevertheless, the controversy continues at fever pitch as to whether or not pop music vides are an art form or merely a clever pistache--an artiface geared to stocking the starmaking machinery of the music business. Webster's New World Dictionary defines art as "...creative work or its principles, making or doing of things that display form, beauty, and unusual perception...(this) includes painting, sculpture, architecture, music, literature, drama, the dance..." (Second Collegiate Edition, 1974, p. 78)

True art is often hard to distinguish from watered-down practices such as artiface (skill used as a means of trickery or deception) and craft (ingenuity in execution usually involving a comparatively lessened degree of creative thought). It could be argued that elements of all of these forms exist in pop music videos; however, a socio-historical survey of the genre would seem necessary in order to ascertain the true nature of the genre.

 

Historical Background

In some respects, video clips are a relatively recent development; e.g., the form's conceptual and technical sophistication, the astronomical costs of production and the burgeoning home videocassette market. If one accepts the aforementioned definition of these clips, then it can be established that they have been around far longer than the video phenomenon itself. As early as 1921, the German Oskar Fischinger started experimenting with short animated films utilizing abstract-geometrical forms dancing to jazz and classical music. He later achieved immortality for his conceptualization of the initial sequence in Walt Disney's Fantasia set to Bach's "Toccata and Fugue."

By the mid-1930s, visual shorts had begun incorporating plots and universally recognizable settings in order to enhance the existing musical track. Large numbers of clips were made for theatrical distribution featuring the era's big bands and other top pop artists. Michael Shore, in The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video, noted, "some of them are fully as imaginative and eye- catching as anything being made today."

The appearance of the video jukebox represented a further refinement in the evolution leading up to the modern day video clip. The Panoram Soundie would play musical movie shorts for a dime or quarter. Although the machine continued to be used throughout the 1940s, the majority of filmlets were produced in the early years of that decade, typically featuring simulated live performances by stars such as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Bing Crosby. However, a small percentage of them included primitive special effects as in the case of Mabel Todd's "At the Club Savoy" which employed the device of flashback to tell the story of the girl's guilt (set in a temperence hall no less!) over going on a bender the previous night. While soundies were the victims of neglect on the part of a generation obsessed with TV and rock 'n' roll, an updated version called the Scopitone enjoyed widespread popularity in Europe during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The clips produced during this period wer gaudy and often unintentionally surreal in their attempts to visually complement the music. Neil Sedaka's "Calendar Girl" (1961) represented a case in point, featuring elaborate set and costume changes for every month of the year.

The groundwork for the present day video clip was laid in the mid-1960s as an increasing number of bands began making promotional films to send television rock shows. The rationale for the rise of this phenomenon among the pop artists of that era included (1) the lack of availability in-person, (2) the high cost--financially and physically--of constant travel (a particularly salient point of view for American acts who found a receptive market in England or their video clips via TV pop music variety programs such as Ready Steady Go!), (3) opposition to live performing (the Beatles--as was so often the case--set the precedent by announcing their retirement from the stage in the summer of 1966), and (4) concern with the negative implications of lip-synching as had been the modus operandi for hit artists seeking wider exposure via television since the early the early days of American Bandstand.

Given the experimental climate of rock music during the psychedelic period, it was inevitable that many of these prototype videos would display a high level of aesthetic creativity and technical mastery of the medium. A classic example is the 1967 clip, "Happy Jack," available on videocassette as part of the 1979 film documentary on the Who's career, The Kids Are Alright. The clip reveals a wealth of comic invention, casting the band members as bumbling burglars in a Chaplinesque silent-movie-style caper.

Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is generally recognized as the video clip most responsible for ushering in the modern era. It is felt to represent the first case in which a video played a primary role in elevating a pop song to hit status. The clip anticipates many of the cinematic techniques achieving widespread application at a later date, including split images and widely panning stage shots.

During its infancy the video clip profited from the creative energy expended on a wide variety of fronts. Most notable sources of input were: (1) the underground art community, (2) television, (3) commercial film, and (4) dance clubs.

 

The Underground Art Community

Proponents within this sector were of inestimable importance in broadening the medium's aesthetic reach, incorporating elements of dramatics (e.g., acting, mime, soliloquy), contemporary art music, the graphic arts, documentary journalism, filmmaking, and animation. A San Francisco-based group of conceptual artists, The Residents, pioneered the multi-media approach to video production. The group's "Land of 1000 Dances" (1975) has been characterized by Shore as "The most utterly, exuberantly original and bizarre performance video ever." The work possesses three distinct sequences: a dreamlike pixilated opening in which the group members wheel shopping carts with pointy telephone-wire conductor- like structures attached to their fronts; a cavern club setting reveals the band perverting the 1960s dance classic for which the clip is titled in mutant tribal stomp fashion; the ending features a storm trooper zapping the unholy performers with a ray gun.

 

Television

Television has always been the major channel for the transmission of the video clip. Therefore, it is not surprising that a host of TV programming formats have influenced the genre, including sitcoms and serials (e.g., Ozzie & Harriet with Ricky Nelson, The Donna Reed Show with Shelly Fabares and Paul Petersen), variety shows (Elvis Presley's 1956 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, Stage Show, featuring Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, and The Steve Allen Show remain led-in snapshots in the photo album of rock history; their ambiance was lovingly recreated by Billy Joel in his 1984 clip, "Tell Her About It.") and music concert/dance venues. The pioneering stateside shows such as Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand were duplicated in England as Top of the Pops and Juke Box Jury. The U.K.'s Ready Steady Go!, first broadcast in August 1963, broke new ground in allowing artist to perform without lip-synching. ABC's Shindig and NBC's Hullabaloo, both instituted in 1965, featured prerecorded, conceptual shorts such as the Beatles' "Day Tripper," which showed the band going through their typical hijinks in a railroad car set. During the 1970s, The Midnight Special represented the prime venue for video clips, enabling the fledging form to reach a growing audience.

The Monkees deserves at least a footnote in video clip history for its attempt to blend all of the aforementioned TV formats. Modeled after the Beatles film, A Hard Days Night, the program was killed by the band's lack of musical credibility at a time when progressive rock held sway as wellas the rise of pallid copied such as The Archies and The Patridge Family (the program is making a comeback in the 1980s via syndication on, ironically enough, MTV). However, as noted by director Bob Rafaelson, in The Rolling Stone Book of Rock Video, "Almost all the effects you see in videos today, the psychedelic solarizations, the quick cutting, are things we were doing years ago.

Commercial Films

An increasingly refined synthesis of music and plot--which became the hallmark of the conceptual video clip--evolved during the rock era. In the first true rock 'n' roll film, Blackboard Jungle (1955), the music functioned merely to frame the plot.

Elvis Presley, as with television, inalterably changed the course of development with his steady stream of releases between 1956 and 1968, most of which featured a half dozen or so carefully choreographed song interludes. The next advance was ushered in by the jukebox musical which starred the likes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Chubby Checker, and Frankie Avalon. These movies typically showcased several pop acts performing within a lame, forgettable plot. The jukebox musical mutated in the 1960s into muscle beach movies, social relevance flicks, and drug-tinged surrealism. By the time nostalgia (e.g., American Graffiti) and dance-oriented (e.g., Saturday Night Fever) films became bankable commodities in the 1970s a genuinely seamless blend of music and action had been achieved, due in large part to rock's then unassailable position as the soundtrack of life in Middle America.

Dance Clubs

By the onset of the 1980s clubs had become the outlet for the viewing of video clips. While the ascendancy of clubs to a mass preoccupation was closely linked to the disco music craze, additional factors played a key role such as the decline of radio as an innovative medium, the AOR-preoccupation of record labels and the expense of touring as a means of breaking acts. Video came to be seen by the industry as a one-time expense that could be viewed continuously, even in many places at the same time. The founding of RockAmerica by Ed Steiberg in 1980 rendered the marriage complete. Largely as a result of Steiberg's awareness of the demo tapes in abundant supply made by record companies for in-house marketing meetings, company-wide conventions, etc., RockAmerica quickly became the nation's largest video pool servicing video-equipped rock clubs.

The hegemony enjoyed by the clubs disappeared almost overnight with the institution of MTV in the fall of 1981. Within a couple of years virtually every channel in the United States possessed at least one program built around videos (see Table 1). The video clip's importance to the record industry by then transcended its original promotional uses; MTV was lending its name to sampler albums and the shorts functioned to cement the tie-in between films and soundtrack releases. On occasion, artists (e.g., Joe Jackson in 1984, Van Halen and Journey in 1986) rebelled against the make-a-clip-for-MTV syndrome. In addition, the channel's viewership leveled off in the mid-1980s (spurring the development of non-musical programming) and industry insiders such as Dick Clark rechristened radio as the foremost arbiter in determining chart action. Nevertheless, the video clip phenomenon has remained a force within the entertainment field up to the present day.

 

 

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TABLE 1: VIDEO CLIPS ON TELEVISION, 1985 ___________________________________________________________________________________

 

A. MTV/Music Television. This cable television pioneered the Top 40 pop music concept within a video context. After losing 50 million dollars between 1981-1983, the station achieved a 8.1 million dollar profit during the first half of 1984; during the latter time span it reached 23.5 million households, up 57 percent from 1983. On January 1, 1985, its owner, Warner Amex, launched Video Hits One (VH-1), which targeted a middle-aged audience.

 

B. Cable Competitors

Full-time

--Discovery Music Network

--Cable Music Channel (Part of Ted Turner's communications empire, it was bought out by MTV in late 1984 after several months of lackluster impact.)

Part-time

--USA (Programs have included Night Flight, Radio 1990, and Heart Beat City.)

--Disney Channel (DTV segments, usually lasting 15 minutes apiece, several times per day.)

--BET (Video Vibrations)

--WTBS (Night Tracks)

--The Nashville Network

--Nickelodeon

 

C. Networks

--ABC (ABC Rocks)

--CBS (Solid Gold)

--NBC (Friday Night Videos; Rock-N-America, featuring Dick Clark)

 

D. Independent Stations

--America's Top 10, featuring Casey Kasem

--N.Y. Hot Tracks

--101 Rock Place (Channel 20, Houston, Texas)

--Solid Gold (syndicated reruns) ___________________________________________________________________________________

 

Impact Upon Society

A preoccupation with the blatantly promotional aspects of video clips as well as their vast proliferation tends to obscure the high order of aesthetic creativity characterizing a notable percentage of the available product. Additional signs of the aesthetic viability of these clips include (1) the diversified range of styles, themes, and techniques (see Table 2) developed in such a comparatively short period of time; (2) the increased involvement

 

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TABLE 2: CATEGORIES OF VIDEO CLIPS WITH NOTABLE EXAMPLES ___________________________________________________________________________________

 

A. Live Concert. Aim: to provide an appreciation for the act as a performing unit. This represents the most cliche-ridden grouping; e.g., guitars arranged in phallanx formation, smoke bombs. A chief variant: posturing in more intimate surroundings--such as a living room or classroom--with little attempt to make it appear like the artist is really performing. Examples: Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days"; Police's "Spirits in the Material World."

B. Dance/Theatrical Sequence. Key influence: West Side Story. Examples: Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Thriller"; Rod Stewart's "Young Turks."

C. Dramatic Action. Essence: a linear plot which may or may not conform to the song's lyrics. The visual action frequently skirts around the lyrics (they may be too vague to allow for a literal interpretation), thereby giving rise to a surrealistic frame of reference. Examples: Berlin's "No More Lies," a take-off on Bonnie and Clyde; Golden Earring's espionage fantasy, "Twilight Zone"; Greg Kihn's Oz parody, "Reunited."

D. Message Video. The typical approach consists of protesting the status quo. Hot topics include: class stratification, war, the environment, the complexities and pressures of modern society, unabashed hedonism, conformism, authoritarian leadership, and moral bankruptcy. Examples: Billy Joel's "Allentown"; U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday"; Randyandy's "Living in the USA"; Devo's "Beautiful World." The latter clip, according to Shore, "may be the most powerful sociopolitical use of sustained, concentrated montage since the Odessa Steps sequence of Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. The visuals reveal a protagonist tuning in on 1950s Americana, communicated via a quick-cut montage of images culled from newsreels and TV framed by the band's sardonic greeting-card verse. The video's progression from innocence to increasingly disturbing images constitutes the core of its dramatic thrust.

E. Conceptual. There are three major subheadings here: (1) art for art's sake; the clip glorifying technical virtuosity as its own end. Prime examples would be Missing Person's "Surrender Your Heart," which features Peter Max art endowed with breathtaking kinetic energy, and Philip Glass' "Act III," a visual depiction of the music's thematic development. (2) Art aimed at evoking an emotional reaction. The most productive style is, again, surrealism; David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes" represents a production tour de force. Bowie is cast in three roles, that of a Pagliacci clown, high-tech junkie, and asylum inmate. The imagery is cryptic and evocative, featuring flamboyant costumes, Slavic figures in procession, a clown sinking into a lake, etc. Especially intriguing are the clip's deliberately overloaded direction (characterized by demented, horror-movie camera angles and neurotic cuts from supersaturated color to black and white) and the self-referential video-within-video motif, wherein each new sequence is introduced by Bowie holding up a postcard-sized video screen displaying the first shot of the next sequence. (3) Anti-art art. Artists working in this category generally cultivate the cheap look, although many are of poor quality due to limited financial resources. Clips are typified by risk-taking (high degree of subjectivity, transcending the boundaries of good taste regarding the status quo, etc.) and inclinations to excess. Avant-garde artists such as Eno and Cabaret Voltaire fall within this category.

F. Humorous/Gag Presentation. Again, three main divisions exist: (1) Black humor. This form does not refer to racial subject matter but rather to a somewhat flippant treatment of the darker sides of life, often at the risk of crossing over into the realm of what a mainstream audience would consider to be bad taste. Favored themes include marital violence and fear of the bomb a la Dr. Strangelove. The Gap Band's "You Dropped a Bomb On Me" is a particularly clever variation on the latter theme, employing metaphor (i.e., love equated with a bombing raid) to achieve jarring visual--as well as literary--impact. (2) Satire. Examples abound here; Donald Fagen's "New Frontier" represents one of the more strikingly conceived contributions. The work comments playfully on 1950s mores, insecurities, and sense of aesthetic chic. The outwardly nostalgic plot reveals a teenage couple revisiting the Cold War years via a deserted bomb shelter. A less successful trend within this grouping, from an artistic standpoint, has been the self-conscious, often pretentious, attempt to spoof videomaking itself. (3) Nonsense. Utopia's "Feets Don't Fail Me Now," a product of video wunderkind Todd Rundgren, which portrays Muppet-styled cockroaches who suspect they should be involved in anything besides their present predicament, exemplifies this type.

G. The Travelogue. A prevailing strategy here seems to be the more exotic the clime the better one's chances of holding the viewer's attention. Teen stars, Duran Duran, shamefully exploit this maxim, offering the same plot from one video to another merely spread across a varying palette of locales; today a jungle in Indochina, tomorrow sailing the Caribbean, or maybe the mystical rites of the Inca past. Stop-action photography represents one of the heavily used cinematic devices within this category. Jean-Luc Ponty's "Individual Choice," Randyandy's "Living in the USA," and James Brown's "America" all feature frantically speeded-up images of Americans going about their everyday activities with liberal dollops of easily recognized physical landmarks thrown in for good measure. ___________________________________________________________________________________

 

of first-line film directors such as Andy Warhol and Zbigniew Rybczynski with the medium; and (3) perhaps of greatest significance, the indelible mark they have left upon our society. Videos mirror, and to some degree, influence society's values, attitudes, and belief systems. Although frequently criticized as being superficial and preoccupied with sex and violence, they have employed a bold new visual vocabulary to reflect the rich diversity of life itself. The images portrayed include:

Vicarious experience. Videos offer up an exciting kaleidoscope of activities such as exotic travel (e.g., Elton John on the Riviera in "I'm Still Standing," Mike Nesmith in "Rio"), spying (e.g., Glenn Frey in a Miami Vice segment), and war (e.g., Pat Benatar as a fighter pilot in "Shadows of the Night").

Nostalgia. The Alan Parsons Project's "Don't Ask Me Why" parodies Depression era films, detective novels, and comic strips. Disney Television clips offer a double dose of the past--classic rock 'n' roll songs set to familiar vintage cartoon footage spliced together in montage form.

Instruction. Clips may either provide one's first awareness of an idea, issue, subject, etc., or depict it more vividly by exploiting the possibilities of the medium. "We Are the World" exhorts viewers to share their wealth with the dispossessed and starving African masses while Prince's "1999" opts for enjoying life unencumbered by Puritannical hang-ups before it's too late.

The expression of youthful rebelliousness. Targets typically include schools (e.g., Twisted Sister's "I Wanna Rock", parents (e.g., Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It"), the law (e.g., Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55"), and a host of other institutions at the core of the Establishment.

The expression of regional pride; for example, Los Angeles is represented by Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." and Frank Sinatra's "L.A. Is My Lady."

Materialism. Chief objects of devotion include cars (e.g., ZZ Top's "Gimme All Your Lovin') and clothes (e.g., ZZ Top's "Best Dressed Man," the camp elegance of Adam Ant). Upward mobiity (e.g., Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out") represents a major variation on this theme.

Protest. This activity is largely the province of the message video. The high profile of a spinoff school, whose seeming praise of the status quo is overlaid with a strong ironic twist (e.g., Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," John Cougar Mellencamp's "Pink Houses"), attests to the artistic depth of the better video clips.

Tolerance for mild deviations in behavior. America likes to view itself as the last bastion of individuality and the skewed characterizations of some videos would appear to support this argument. Boy George, formerly with the band, Culture Club, flirted with transvestism although he made it clear that he was basically a well-adjusted, decent bloke whose father and brothers were boxers. Rod Stewart indulges in voyeurism in "Infatuation," but somehow his never-say-die attitude leaves us rooting for him to win the girl right up until the end of the clip.

In some instances video clips might be viewed as change agents within our society. Viewing clips could hasten catharsis; that is, identifying with a particular message, knowing you're not alone out there. The strong emotional and intellectual benefits of this experience could in turn stimulate the viewer to take on more of an activist role; for example, to donote food and money to the hungry in Ethiopia after viewing Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas."

 

Summary

Perhaps the most notable feature of video clips as a recording medium is that they possess the power to evoke strong aesthetic reactions within a short time span. For many, such an experience might not signify anything other than light entertainment. However, they are capable of challenging the participant on far deeper levels, whether drawing upon other art forms (e.g., Todd Rundgren's manipulation of the visual symbols of Dali and Magritte on a more literal plane in "Time Heals") or developing the unique possibilities of the video medium itself. These possibilities include sensory overload (i.e., jamming as much information as possible within the short time span by means of increasing the rapidity of imnages, splitting the screen, etc.--a technique which has been especially influential in television ads; notable examples include Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" and Tom Petty's "Jammin' Me"), the manipulation of predictable censoring standards (already engraved in stone for older media such as TV, the cinema, comics, radio, etc.), and dispensing with narrative demands and, thereby, encouraging figurative forms of thinking.