A sincere argument for the music video as an art form is inherently problematic. While theater, literature, film and the visual arts have been identified for their profitability for centuries, none are so deeply entrenched in the world of commerce as the music video. Some fieldwork revealed that students think of them as “inconsequential,” “glorified advertisements” or “candy for people with short attention spans.” One interviewee noted, “The new Beyonce vizzle gets my pizzle all in a tizzle,” which All Sussed Out is hesitantly interpreting as indicative of the blatant exploitation of sex in hip-hop videos in order to move CD sales.
The problem with the argument, of course, is that the clips were not only conceived primarily as a marketing tool (widely dubbed “promos” before the advent of MTV), but serve as vehicles to showcase the existing work of other artists. Even the video of a talented filmmaker raises questions of how much artistic control belonged to the director behind the camera, the musician in front of it and the record company bankrolling the effort. When the production ultimately boils down to carving out an image for the involved performer, there seems to be little room for individual artistic expression.
As with any other medium, the vast majority of music videos produced is predictably derivative rubbish. A slew of directors have made a pretty penny from scanning Hype Williams blueprints, cutting and pasting the appropriate rapper, and reprinting the formula endlessly. Prime culprits are Little X and Chris Robinson, who crank out seemingly nonstop streams of product, developing greater intimacy with their fish-eye lenses than with the artists’ music. They have created a combined total of over 150 videos for the libidinous likes of Mystikal and R. Kelly, representing the industry’s rough equivalent of Danielle Steele.
But while the likes of Little X and Robinson enjoy the most air time on those crevices of MTV that remain hospitable towards music videos, they only represent the medium’s lower limits. At the other extreme are remarkable talents who exploit and revel in the unique confluence of sight, sound and stardom that music videos provide.
Of these directors, the most deservedly sought-after is Mark Romanek. An master of lighting and color effects, Romanek frequently takes an askew approach to his subjects’ celebrity to warp his audiences’ preconceptions. In Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” he takes the barely legal sensuality of the singer and sullies it in decidedly illicit ways, and in the highly regarded “Hurt,” he lays out the iconic legend of Johnny Cash in flashes of archival footage until offering the ailing singer at his most vulnerable. Countless other directors work at a similar level of inspired ingenuity, including computer animator Shynola (Queens of the Stone Age’s “Go with the Flow”) and Jonathan Glazer (UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights”).
But perhaps the strongest arguments for the music video’s artistic validity can be found within the recently issued “Work of Director” DVD series. Each disc compiles the best works from three auteurs who have yanked the medium from its greenback roots and catapulted it firmly into the realm of fine art. Where Romanek embraces and manipulates the pervading connotations carried by musicians, these three directors demonstrate a fierce unwillingness to compromise with the cookie-cutter, performance-oriented standards presented on TRL. Instead, they ardently pursue their personal vision, while directly engaging the music or abstractly absorbing its themes.
The most recognizable name in the bunch is Spike Jonze, primarily due to his award-winning direction of the films Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His videos echo the anomalous juxtapositions often found in his films; in Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” he guides a six-foot speech-endowed dog through New York City, then orchestrates a meticulously choreographed aerial waltz with Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” Though Jonze’s collection is the most satisfying for its breadth of styles, the offerings are occasionally spotty and relatively shallow exercises.
Chris Cunningham is more of a true visionary, foreseeing an apocalypse brought down by four horsemen who all look suspiciously like Aphex Twin, a.k.a. Richard D. James. He imagines societies overridden by ultraviolence and emotions propelled by automation, then complements his vision with tonally appropriate pieces from artists such as Autechre and Portishead. The marriage is always perversely poetic, culminating in a video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” replete with erotically charged robots.
But the real prize in the series is the set created by Michel Gondry. Gondry demonstrates an acute perception of the visual manifestations of music, and in an astounding triumvirate of videos, gives each aspect of the song its own aesthetic texture. The first, Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” displays each instrument and vocal part in the song enacted by a costumed dancer; the Chemical Brothers’ “Star Guitar” replaces the people with aspects of a landscape viewed from a train window; and Gondry’s latest, the White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button,” shows each individual drumbeat visually manifested by a rapidly replicating Meg White. The Psycho shower scene be damned, no filmmaker has better realized the potential coalescence of the visual with the aural in such an innovative manner.
These directors’ works collectively represent the emergence of a distinctive and important art form, in which the filmmaker is given the raw materials to organize a structure that supports the music but remains the essential product of his imagination. The days of dismissing music videos as fluff will soon go the way of your Kajagoogoo cassettes. So stop complaining that MTV never plays music videos anymore, turn off “Punk’d”, and invest in these three DVDs. If not for their indisputable artistry, then for the simple satisfaction of robbing Ashton Kutcher of a little of his livelihood.
—Crimson Arts columnist Ben Chung can be reached at email@example.com.
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