Did Video Kill The Radio Star?
Historically, the music video did not emerge until the 1920s and gained prominence in the 1980s with the invention of music television. Despite music’s chronological precedence over videos, it seems hard today to imagine a time when the two didn’t go hand in hand. Few are those who hear Daft Punk's Around The World without breaking into robotic moves or the beginning of Bohemian Rhapsody without visualising that shot of Queen shining through the darkness, singing acapella. Our natural tendency to associate sound with images lends itself to the success of the music video but is this phenomenon is for better or for worse?
The positives of the music video are countless: the chance to expand on artistic vision, to voice themes and elements that weren’t explored within the confines of the song itself and, in some cases, the opportunity to use the music video as a tool for social or political involvement. David Bowie was perhaps one of the pioneers of the latter with the videos for China Girl and Let’s Dance tackling the issues of racism, in an attempt to make use of this new visual trend for more than narcissistic self-promotion. Bowie’s music videos are comparable to short films, constituting veritable platforms on which to expose the demeaning racial intolerance of the West, particularly towards the Indigenous peoples of Australia or towards the East as a whole. Both are rife with stereotypes, from the exoticism of the Other in China Girl to the repetitive manual labour of the Indigenous people in Let’s Dance.
In the era of internet sensations and mass media, the visual aspect becomes almost or just as important as the music itself.
Unfortunately, Bowie’s attitude towards the potential of music videos is shared by few other artists and the temptation to produce iconic visuals that the general public recognise and respond to often takes priority over maintaining an artistic vision. In the era of internet sensations and mass media, the visual aspect becomes almost or just as important as the music itself. Perhaps the most popular and accessible way of achieving such a feat is through the creation of a unique dance routine or atmosphere that lends itself to tribute videos: cast your minds back to the global phenomenon of the Harlem Shake or Happy by Pharrell Williams, which even elicited involvement at government and military level.
A complete reversal has taken place where music and visuals are concerned: one would watch the music video if they liked the song, not listen to the song if they knew of the video. The latter merely acted as a bonus element, a sort of musical Easter egg, giving the chance to delve further into the song and its vibe, its lyrics, its meaning.
This is not to say that artistic vision and iconic imagery cannot go hand in hand. Quite on the contrary, merging sound and sight allows for a complete audio-visual experience, pushing the boundaries of art towards interdisciplinarity and multimedia. By the 1990s, directors were listed in accreditations, elevating the music video to the status of a creative movement in and of itself. More than a chance for the band or singer to expand on their artistic vision, the music video is an opportunity to include other talents and art forms: New Order’s True Faith became a showcase for the choreography of French director Philippe Decouflé while A-ha’s Take On Me reflected the technological advancements of 1985 by merging sketch animation and live action. The impact of such videos in the history of music is undeniable; however, such an impact stemmed from their innovative nature, a goal which is much harder to reach in a media-saturated society in which it feels like everything has already been done.
Would Psy have claimed the title of first K-pop singer to reach number 1 in the UK Singles Chart had the music video for Gangnam Style not been a worldwide internet sensation? And would Wrecking Ball have taken the number 1 spot without the controversy surrounding a naked Miley Cyrus coming in on an actual wrecking ball? Would they really have reached the same amount of people, on such a worldwide scale, had they lacked the iconic visuals associated with them? What sets these visuals aside from say, Rick Astley undulating in an oversized trench coat (no offense Rick) is their potential for worldwide controversy, parody and imitation. You need simply search ‘Gangnam Style parody’ on YouTube to gauge the full extent of the music video’s reach. Among the most amusing are Gandalf Style, in which the K-pop hit is transposed into the world of Mordor complete with Chad Nikolaus prancing around in a long grey beard.
The danger, then, is the temptation for emerging artists in particular to become internet sensations in order to achieve recognition. The tragedy of Vincent Van Gogh is proof enough of the difficulty of getting work out into the big bad world, let alone in the media-saturated climate of the 21st century. The constantly-developing relationship between the music industry and social media is both a blessing and a curse – new artists have a platform on which to share their work, but a million other artists have access to the same platform, requiring extra luck, thought or talent to run the extra mile.
Essentially, people will always associate visuals and music so the video will be more memorable if it works harmoniously with the song. Look to music videos that are famous for the right reasons: Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes or Radiohead’s No Surprises. We should favour music videos that tell a story above shots of scantily-clad women dancing around a pool for no reason. Look to the beautifully sad visuals of Ed Sheeran’s A Team or to the narrative in A Beautiful Lie by 30 Seconds to Mars which chose artistic vision over public recognition. Don’t let video kill the radio star.