Music video week | Sound and vision: a potted history of an artform

Permanent Plastic Helmet is taking a simultaneous trip down memory lane and into the future with a very special week dedicated to the mercurial wonder of the music video. To kick us off, here’s a selective, slightly personal tour through the history of this still youthful artform.

David Bowie’s ‘Ashes To Ashes’

Music videos take off

“Don’t you wonder sometimes, ‘bout sound and vision?”, queried David Bowie on 1977’s ‘Sound and Vision’. The chameleonic singer clearly did, and was one of the first major stars to latch onto the emerging music video zeitgeist of the time with the characteristically odd, eyecatching promo for ‘Ashes To Ashes’, directed by David Mallet in 1980. A pre-MTV blast of creativity, the video’s compelling blend of self-mythology, formal invention and striking visuals seemed to foreshadow the following decade in which music videos became one of the key mediums for musical artists to market their product, experiment creatively, and construct indelible images for themselves. Music videos sometimes complemented the lyrics and content of the song, sometimes they were simply flights of imaginative fancy.

The idea of integrating music with image was nothing new, from the iconic opening scene of D.A. Pennebaker’s Dylan doc Don’t Look Back (‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’), to The Beatles sophisticated efforts like ‘Rain’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever‘, to Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ and even film musicals like Tommy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but my focus starts with the era when music videos solidified as an integral promotional and image-making tool for artists looking to reach out to a wider fanbase.

Top of the Pops in the UK, Countdown and Sounds in Australia, and various cable shows in the US had offered a platform for largely rudimentary early attempts at music promos, but it was the launch of MTV in 1981 that really kicked things off on a grand scale. The first video shown was the prophetic ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, a 1979 single by British group Buggles. As a business, MTV earned $7 million in advertising revenue in the first 18 months. Soon, the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs) launched to introduce a competitive element to proceedings.

With this unprecedented 24/7 support framework in place, music videos began to experiment increasingly with form, content and budget. A pre-digital music industry was awash with cash, and in a position to throw millions at directors and artists. Some of the most eye-catching promos of the decade looked to innovative animation techniques (Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer’, a-ha’s ‘Take On Me’, to name but two), while others attempted to craft entire narratives replete with oft-regrettable attempts at acting, and scripted, distractingly overlaid dialogue (“Hello! Yes I’m talking to you, Lionel Richie”). Many instead simply opted for semi-integrated concert footage.

As was ever thus in the music world, image was everything, and what better way to promote your image than by beaming an idealised version of it to millions of viewers? For example, on record, Duran Duran were marked largely by Simon le Bon’s honking vocals and impenetrable lyrics, but thanks to their lavish promos (of which ‘Rio’ – directed by experienced Aussie maverick Russell Mulcahy – is surely the most memorable), the boys from Birmingham held captive an international audience which viewed them with jealousy and admiration as pastel-suited playboys larking around on yachts. Similarly, Robert Palmer cemented his dapper image with a string of suave, deadpan vids featuring stateuesque models as his backing band. It all went deeper than that, though. With 1983’s neon-noirish, floor-lit ‘Billie Jean’, Michael Jackson was largely credited with breaking the insidious colour barrier maintained by MTV, who, despite their undoubted innovation, had pretty much shut out successful black artists up until that point.

Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, directed by John Landis

The role of the director

The 1980s also saw the first instances of directorial heavyweights from the cinema world muscling in on the act. American Werewolf in London director John Landis’ remarkable 14-minute opus ‘Thriller’ remains the only music video to be inducted into the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and is perhaps still the high-concept watermark of the genre. Jackson later teamed up with Martin Scorsese (and a pre-fame Wesley Snipes) for 1987’s ‘Bad’. Spike Lee helmed videos for rap titans Public Enemy as well as Prince. Respected actors would take a chance on music vids, like Donald Sutherland in Kate Bush’s ‘Cloudbusting’. Meanwhile, music video self-reflexivity reached its apotheosis in Brian de Palma’s 1984 absolute sleazefest of a film Body Double, in an astonishing scene in which the narrative completely dropped out in favour of an extended Frankie Goes To Hollywood video.

Over time, the music video became one of the premier forums for creative visual talents to express themselves, and displaying a skill with the artform itself became something of a “calling card”. Towards the end of 1992, MTV began to credit the director at the start and end of each video, in the process significantly promoting the idea of authorship within the artform. Now, viewers could look out for the names of directors and pick up on recurring tropes, ideas and visual motifs. Many made the leap into feature film directing (including Tarsem, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Hype Williams, McG) and though the “music video” label is often used pejoratively, connoting style over substance and a kinship with advertising, there’s no doubting the impact these filmmakers have made, if not always critically, then commercially.

Of the MTV2 generation in the 1990s, perhaps the three most influential music video directors were Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, whose trailblazing work was immortalized in a series of DVDs entitled Directors Label, the first of which were released in 2003. Both Jonze and Gondry have gone on to estimable directing careers (Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind my own respective personal favourites of theirs), while UK counterparts Jonathan Glazer and Jamie Thraves (both garlanded for their respective Radiohead videos ‘Karma Police‘ and ‘Just‘) followed suit.

Changing times

As the presence of music videos grew in pop culture discourse so, of course, did their ambition. Early pioneer Michael Jackson would later go on to participate in the most expensive promo of all time, the effects-laden ‘Scream’, with his sister Janet in 1996. Others in the top ten include two from Madonna (‘Express Yourself’ and Bond theme ‘Die Another Day’), and – astonishingly – ‘Cartoon Heroes’ by Danish pop chumps Aqua, which clocked in at the cost of a cool $4.7m. R&B act TLC’s ‘Unpretty’ – a song which earnestly preached the value of staying true to oneself –  boasted a million-dollar make-up budget.

Jonas Akerlund’s controversial promo for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’

The manner in which audiences consumed music videos evolved significantly over the years. MTV faced some competition with the lighter, more MOR-oriented VH1 and then The Box, while in the UK the weekly Top Of The Pops – which switched between live or lip-synched performances – was complemented by Saturday morning’s The Chart Show, which ran in the UK on Channel 4 between 1986 and 1988, then on ITV between from 1989 up until its 1998 cancellation. When I didn’t have satellite TV, I was restricted to the likes of the short-lived Dr Fox’s Video Jukebox on LWT.

MTV developed as a company to serve other genres. In 1988, Yo! MTV Raps heralded a new platform for hip hop and rap (The Beastie Boys and Ice Cube among those to embrace the genre with relish), while MTV’s alternatively focused programme 120 minutes became a cornerstone of first the main channel (for 14 years), and then a further three on its sister channel MTV2. It was the UK iteration of MTV2 which proved central to my own appreciation of music videos, after the intermittent output of the terrestrial channels. MTV Base catered for the R&B genre. In 1993, MTV were also behind Mike Judge’s brilliantly puerile animation Beavis and Butthead, which featured the two eponymous, sniggering morons commenting snarkily on music videos from the comfort of their own homes: an eerily prescient foreshadow of today’s keyboard warrior culture.

Theme and content-wise, the 1990s also saw a more pronounced turn toward the controversial in music videos. Though the 80s were hardly without scandal (Duran Duran’s ‘Girls on Film’ and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ spring to mind), the next decade possessed it in spades. My 12-year-old self was hugely excited to see the uncut version of Jonas Akerlund’s promo for the Prodigy’s POV sex, drugs & vomit rampage ‘Smack My Bitch Up’, even if it looks a little tame now. Conversely, time has done little to diminish the visceral impact of Chris Cunningham’s enormously creepy vid for Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ (which used body horror to subvert tired hip hop video cliches) or Glazer’s harrowing promo for Unkle’s ‘Rabbit In Your Headlights’, which featured French actor Denis Lavant being repeatedly struck by speeding cars in a tunnel.

Particular genres carved out their own particular styles. Rap videos, for example, became overwhelmingly associated (in the mainstream media’s consciousness at least) with a bling n’ bitches aesthetic that was parodied acidly and brilliantly by The Roots in their 1996 video for ‘What They Do’. More outre artists like Missy Elliott, OutKast and Busta Rhymes carved out their own unforgettable niches, often with the help of fish eye lenses. Meanwhile, doomy rock acts like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson often favoured a scratchy, industrial, blue/grey paletted template. While all this was going on, bands like Radiohead and Tool developed reputations as being forward thinking and collaborative in their music video art, breathed new life into the idea of the compilation video.

R Kelly gets ‘Trapped In The Closet’

The digital impact

The next major sea change in the music video was launch of YouTube in February 2005, which suddenly opened up the doors to a treasure trove of music videos most people though they’d never see again, because not every band had gotten round to releasing a greatest hits video (or later, DVD). Though a slightly haphazard strain of copyright protection and advertising got in the way of unfettered enjoyment before long, it really is difficult to overstate the revolutionary impact of the near-magical unveiling of this audio-visual pandora’s box rich with delight, embarrassment and memories. Sony and YouTube clubbed together in 2009 to create Vevo, a dedicated area of YouTube for music videos, which has been a success, seeing record labels directly benefitting financially from large advertising revenues.

The YouTube revolution also allowed for variations in form, personified most egregiously by R Kelly’s utterly mental R&B opera ‘Trapped In The Closet’; a lurid, one-note melodrama cleaved into a scarcely believable 22 separate parts. This year, Kelly announced there would be even more. Indie band OK GO, in much the same way that Sacha Baron Cohen’s publicity stunts are now widely regarded as better than his films, are perhaps the first band to be genuinely more well known for their videos than their songs. They reached their zenith with James Frost’s extraordinarily complex and daring Mousetrap-inspired promo for ‘This Too Shall Pass‘. Meanwhile, talented directors like Patrick Daughters, Shynola, Floria Sigismondi and Dougal Wilson were, like Tim Pope (famed for his work with The Cure in the 1980s), able to carve out distinctive visual styles of their own.

The seemingly unstoppable rise of the internet coincided with – and no doubt influenced – the decision of MTV to ultimately jettison its programming of music videos in favour of reality TV garbage like ‘Jersey Shore’ in February 2010 (it had been going down this path for a while). Its absence has had scant effect on the restless creativity and output of innovative music videos. Neither has the form’s capacity to create controversy abated. Music videos remain a punchy canvas for daring artistic statements, and it’s now not uncommon for the release of music videos to be treated as events. Romain Gavras’ faintly ludicrous, but visually bracing, “ginger holocaust” promo for M.I.A’s ‘Born Free‘ provoked a hailstorm of controversy, while Lady Gaga’s fantastically overblown ‘Telephone’ featured a meta-cameo from Beyonce and was released to a huge storm of media opinion in 2010. The year prior, KanYe West’s shameful but hilarious rant aimed at Taylor Swift at the VMAs (‘I’m really happy for you and I’m a let you finish but Beyonce has one of the best videos of all time!”), is an indication of the importance placed on the form from current artists.

Adam Buxton hosting BUG live at the Odeon Leicester Square in Nov 2011

What now, and what next?

And what about those making the music videos in this new era? Well, says up-and-coming music video auteur David Wilson, it’s now “a international sharing community of like-minded artists”, who use the likes of Vimeo and YouTube to upload, promote and comment on each others’ work. The hope is that these videos, if not promoted aggressively by the band or the band’s label, will go viral. In the UK, comedian and radio host Adam Buxton has flown the flag for music video art with his BUG Music Video showcase (performed bi-monthly at London’s BFI Southbank) which is being turned into a TV show for Sky Atlantic. Innovative new directors like DANIELS, AG Rojas and David Wilson are making names for themselves, armed with digital technology that’s a damn sight cheaper than the actual film stock commonplace throughout the 80s and 90s. Unofficial, fan-made videos are now par for the course as anyone with a camera and computer can make a music video.

So, what to conclude from all of this? Well, whereas in the early days the landscape often seemed geared solely toward burnishing the egos, images and bank balances of the labels and stars, the flexibility and opportunity to shine provided by the artform’s broad canvas moved us into an era of music video director as-star (let’s look at Spike Jonze’s crazed turn as an evangelical dance instructor in his promo for Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ as the high watermark of this phenomenon). In this respect, perhaps we can draw an analogy with the New Hollywood cinema of the late-1960s and early 1970s when a new generation of directors like Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Body Double‘s de Palma took unprecedented risks in the wake of the crash of the Hollywood system. Now, with the advent of the digital age and its impact on the music industry, options are wildly increased from both a consumer and creator point of view, and there’s a neat, digitally enhanced synthesis between the director-as-star and young creative-as-director. There seems to be an egalitarian attitude present in, and an enthusiastic drive toward, music video making as evidenced by the barrage of fantastic new videos which seem to crop up on the internet at a rapid rate. The future, without a shadow of a doubt, looks bright.

Over the coming week we’ll have a selection of interviews, articles, contributors’ lists and competitions. Follow us on Twitter @PPlasticHelmet, and if you want to join the conversation, use the hashtag #MusicVideoWeek.

8 thoughts on “Music video week | Sound and vision: a potted history of an artform

  1. Ian Mantgani

    Ash – gave it a second read, this is a really elegantly written summary of the history of the music video, amazingly comprehensive considering the length of it and the ease of the prose. Kudos. A lot of it was familiar ground for me, but still with some surprises, for example – a $1m makeup budget for that TLC video?? Dunno how that fact had passed me by, that’s incredible!

    I feel in some ways where we’ve arrived at on the internet – the egalitarian spirit of digital production that you mention – brings the music video full circle to some of those early roots, eg those Beatles videos, which felt like experimental home movies/art films, people playing around and seeing what they ended up with. (I feel the same way about blogs; they’re like the countercultural zines and underground papers of the 60s, except most of the time without the same revolutionary bent except in their functional threat to traditional media.) The difference is there’s such a weight and history of music videos as their own form, and consumer equipment is now so powerful, that the quality of images and visual ideas is often much better, while still having that experimental feel.

    In some ways we’re so used to music videos being grabbags of spellbinding visual tricks and conceptual wizardry now that sometimes they leave me cold, but then, there are always some that come and shake us out of our complacency. Look forward to seeing what your contributors pick to analyse throughout this week.

  2. Fintan McDonagh

    I should have commented on this before. Excellent article that instantly makes me want to change the ‘Top 3’ that I wasn’t able to give enough time or thought to. Looks like you did enough reseach for all of us!
    Great work, Ash.

  3. Gill Foreman

    Such a great article. That mercurial nature in music videos is gone for the most part, Trapped in the Closet excluded : ) Just found an amazing project that I’m really looking forward to, Moroder’s revamp of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Really rare soundtrack with Freddie Mercury, Pat Benatar and a ton of other 80’s pop royalty. Check it out if you’re interested. I think it premiers in the UK 23 July.


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