The Music Video: Our Changing Relationship
Forget song of the summer. Who cares about the summer? The song of the year has already been decided and the ballots have been closed since March. The race was won when this particular song somehow made the line “I don’t really care if you cry” some kind of defiant cry of reckless abandon and nihilistic joy. It’s the definitive party song for a turbulent age and for a generation caught up in their feelings. It will, in my opinion, become what The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside” was to a certain group of people ten years ago and what Oasis’ “Wonderwall” was to another group of people about ten years before that. It’s the perfect blend between earworm and emotional evocation that embeds itself deeply in our memory of a time and place. It’s not a song of the summer. It’s a song of someone’s youth, what they play to get back to that time in their lives. It’s Lil Uzi Vert’s “XO TOUR Llif3.” And it did all this without a music video.
Few songs better exemplify the simultaneously random yet logical way that songs can bubble up on the low to become hits with little promotion. In February, Vert uploaded four songs to Soundcloud, one of which was “XO TOUR Llif3.” Vert didn’t push for this as the single of the four or give it any special attention. It simply was there. What made it a hit was the fans who shared and promoted it across social media, as democratic a process there can be in music consumption. And “XO TOUR Llif3” is no anomaly. The Soundcloud generation of rappers that are increasingly finding mainstream success are doing so without following any of the old standards of the industry. They are reinventing both how an artist achieves commercial success and what kind of artist can achieve commercial success. It’s blown the rap world wide open to fresh perspectives while also sadly permitting the ascendance of problematic figures like the true monster that is XXXTentacion.
Music videos are far from artistically irrelevant and they remain a key component within the music industry today. They’re just not vital. Vert doesn’t need one to make hits and neither do most artists honestly. Yes, it was only last year that Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade conquered the world but that’s Beyoncé. Lemonade would have been a big deal no matter what. Besides, visual albums will hardly ever become any type of norm and will age as well as surprise releases (remember those? What a dark time in human history). Kendrick Lamar’s artistry is as strongly evident in his music videos as in his actual music yet Lamar’s songs would move the needle regardless. Drake has yet to release a single video from More Life and that album (or ‘playlist’) is as big as anything he’s done. It would seem that the day of the music video is gone, put out by the realities of music streaming.
The glory years of the music video were obviously synonymous with the MTV era, a time which was instrumental to expanding the social reach of music videos as they developed from promotional tool to an art form in their own right. As television became a more dominant cultural force the role of the music video grew alongside it, culminating in a channel like MTV that was almost entirely dedicated to music videos. The reality that people were increasingly consuming music through TV rather than the radio meant that a great video had increased value as it could ensure heavier rotation and thus greater exposure for an artist. In an increasing technological age of non-stop visual and audio stimuli the power of the image was undeniable. Despite this, the true power of the music video was not as a commercial product but as an artistic one.
The artists that really succeeded in this time were the ones who captured an aesthetic or a mood that audiences could identify with. It’s the reason why Oasis are a better band than Blur though Blur made the better music (you can fight me on this if you want, I’ll take ya). Oasis knew they weren’t selling music, they were selling themselves. It’s why Nirvana were such a sensation, more so than any of their peers. The music such bands put out was obviously important but equally as important was everything else surrounding the music. Their fashion, their videos, their media appearance, all of it reinforced the image of the group that the public was buying into. In the 1990’s this image was usually one of authenticity, these groups represented something real in an artificial time of boy bands and PC culture (yes, apparently PC culture has been the ‘scourge’ of society for some time now). At the centre of this turbulent culture, a culture in which the boundaries between low and high brow were being eradicated and people were identifying themselves more and more through the music they listened to, were music videos.
As music moved from radio to television the music video increased in stature. The images these videos provided defined artists in a way they hadn’t before, from Britney Spears dressed as a schoolgirl to Eminem spitting in your onion rings. But as music moved from TV to the Internet the power of the music video decreased significantly. No longer could a music video dominate the cultural conversation or imprint itself inseparably into the cultural consciousness. The market just wasn’t there anymore. Nothing is relative anymore, everything exists in isolation. Obviously to some degree you can measure the success of one artist against another but the domination achievable in the 90’s is no longer feasible. The modern world of the music business is one in which no one is central.
This change has impacted modern stardom in significant ways but the most relevant is a continuation of a trend that emerged during the 90’s. Artists now operate as brands and as brands they cultivate fervent fan bases whose fandom is as much a lifestyle choice as anything else. Instead of appealing to as many people as possible, most musicians will focus on the margins by constructing a persona and style that will enable them to stand out from the pack. This is why Instagram and Snapchat have become such important tools in recent years. Both provide stars the means to not just communicate with their fans and but to constantly reinforce their brand, their own personal unique selling point. For a time music videos carried out a similar function, constructing images that would define artists. However, cultural memory is no longer long enough to permit this to happen. What we have now isn’t concerned with permanency but immediacy, a constant low-key marketing campaign through social media.
The power of music video as an art form is unchanging but what has changed is how music videos are deployed. For a music video to have any kind of longevity it must not be replayable but reusable. Drake was probably the first major artist to truly understand this point. His video for “Hotline Bling” is a masterwork of endlessly ‘this song has me like’ GIF-able moments. Drake’s video for “Energy” is also built around moments. The video, which mainly superimposes Drake’s face onto other celebrities, is an incredibly knowing deployment of photoshop style editing, making use of the type of imagery that is usually produced by consumers of music rather than artists themselves. No one understands the language of the Internet better than Drake and any major star on his level is usually also structuring their videos around ‘moments’. If Taylor Swift’s big budget video for “Look What You Made Me Do” fails, it is chiefly because the imagery offered speaks to no one but Swift herself. Nothing about it speaks to any universal experience or feeling. It’s large and insular and completely useless.
A music video doesn’t need to follow the Drake model by any means. The great thing about art is that it never has to be one thing. Art is not business though. In terms of business, of getting coverage and building a following, few methods are more successful than structuring a music video designed to be repurposed in other contexts. Sometimes you can get lucky and someone can do that for you without you doing anything but putting the song out there. Take Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles.” “Black Beatles” has a video. It’s a good video. But “Black Beatles” true video? That title belongs to any one example of the viral video trend the “Mannequin challenge” in which people stand perfectly still as a song (usually “Black Beatles”) plays. Rae Sremmurd are a ridiculously talented duo and “Black Beatles” might just be their magnum opus but it took an Internet trend to make it a hit. And they’re not the only one.
Bobby Shmurda’s “Hot Nigga” catapulted to success on the back of the viral dance trend “Schmoney Dance” that reached all the way to Beyoncé and Jay Z. Ditto for Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” Rich Homie Quan sparked a dance trend on Vine that prompted an entirely different song from another artist about it (iLoveMemphis’s “Hit the Quan”). This is in some regard a continuation of the same idea of reusability, of songs and videos sparking a larger trend that can catapult a piece of music to commercial success. If music videos once were a complete product they are now more equivalent to a conversation starter. They work as an individual piece but their true strength is as a collection of raw material that can endlessly be recycled, a technique that crowd sources promotion to the consumer.
There’s plenty of room left in this participatory climate for some good old fashioned provocation, videos that simply go for it to demand your attention. It worked for Miley Cyrus with “We Can’t Stop.” It worked for Nicki Minaj with “Anaconda.” And it worked for Fergie with “M.I.L.F.$.” These videos do succeed but, ultimately, if music videos have declined at all it’s as events. Music videos used to have blockbuster budgets and they were unveiled with great ceremony. That’s simply no longer the case. In fact, the modern trend is increasingly towards simplicity. If you want people to recreate your video it has to be easily imitatible or applicable to other scenarios, like an easy to do dance or an image that can be easily repurposed as a meme. Music videos can no longer dominate the conversation but artists have been able to adapt to this reality to create innovative and, sometimes, artful music videos. The market might be smaller but the content has never been stronger. Sometimes smaller is better.