FEATURE: Music Videos and the Art of Expression



IN THIS PHOTO: The heroine in the video for Beck's Up All Night 

 Music Videos and the Art of Expression


THIS sounds like a rather grand title for something...


IN THIS PHOTO: Jay-Z who, in his video for The Story of O.J., created one of the most talked-about videos of this year

that is, in essence, a look at music videos and their importance in the current market. The music video has always been a pivotal and interlinked part of the marketing process. I have been watching videos on YouTube and unfortunately, as one is suspect to, there have been annoying promotional adverts (by Vevo) where various no-name artists talk about their music – and how important videos are to them. It made me wonder how modern artists use music videos and whether they see them as promotional tools – or they are a chance for creative expression and the chance to make something extraordinary. Newer artists don’t get the same chance/budget to film a video of epic scope and concept. Those kinds of dreams are reserved to the elite and wealthy of the mainstream. I do wonder if videos are a part of the process many stars feel weariness towards.

We have all seen recent videos by Taylor Swift, for example, absorb enormous numbers on YouTube. Her single, Look What You Made Me Do, was much-anticipated and, although it is not up to her best days, its build-up, fall-out and video put the song under the microscope. The video is full of symbolism and there are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘who-is-that-about’ visuals. It is a piece that, whilst hardly a visual feast, provoked a lot of interpretations and possibilities. I am surprised the video got as many views as it did. The views are into the hundreds-of-millions and it has been a huge triumph. I know YouTube videos that have surpassed two-billion and that is a rather eye-watering thing to behold. Swift’s recent video is as much about the existing fanbase and gap since her last release. If one looks at the quality and memorability of the video – you are not going to be talking about scene and shots days after seeing it. Returning to the Vevo/YouTube promotions and those artists – their names escape me! – chatted about how videos, to them, is about personalisation and bespoke films. It allows them a chance to express themselves and connect with their fans.



In my mind, the music video is as important now as it ever was. The days of MTV have gone – or when it was considered ground-breaking and the go-to show for artists – as music T.V. does not have the same cachet and sheen as past years. I have written pieces about sexual exploitation and whether videos are being used to flaunt sexuality in order to get an artist trending. There is cynicism with a lot of videos that means they are used as weapons to utilise sexuality and feminism to shift units and get an artist into focus. That might sound cynical but there are those who freely admit it. To me, the most powerful and worthy videos fall into two camps. There are those that promote feminism and positive sexualisation – artists who display sexual freedom and promote a powerful and inspiring message. The other relates to the sheer memorability of a video. Whether it is funny or complicated: plainly simple or possessed of a U.S.P. – those are the videos that ensure through the years.

I fear those artists I saw on YouTube are no in the mind because their videos are quite generic and formulaic. One of the videos that has really stuck in the mind the past few weeks is Beck’s Up All Night. It follows an armoured heroine who drives in a modified Batmobile-type car as a ‘party vigilante’: scolding those who exploit passed-out revellers and try to take advantage. Her stern gaze repeals the worst high-jinx and her metallic clothing magnetically sucks keys and phones to her bodies – so people do not make foolish, ill-judged calls or drive home when well over the limit. It is a brilliant and simple concept that provides wonderfully rich scenes, comedy, pathos and filmic ingenuity – it could be made into a short-film, one feels. It is a brilliant video that matches the song’s lyrics and sticks in the mind long after it has finished. Other great videos this year are from Lana Del Rey and Kendrick Lamar.

The former, for Love, sees Del Rey singing as images are projected onto the screen. Kids get into cars, getting dressed and smiling. There are attractive beach-dwellers in sunglasses and a 1950s’-type family driving. It is a mix of nostalgic and modern that is another luscious and image-rich video. Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. It is rife with symbolism and viral-worthy moments – the golf swing and burning heads; the re-enactment of The Last Supper and epic church scenes. It relies on a big budget and a lot of creative license. Few artists have the pockets and teams to be able to realise a video as stunning and ambitious as HUMBLE. Appropriately ironic in its posturing and scale: a fantastic video that will not escape the brain anytime soon. An history of music videos shows you one does not need a big budget to get into the consciousness. It is interesting arguing whether that is the case now. As much as I love underground artists and their music: the more money one has; the greater the opportunities when it comes to videos. A couple more mainstream videos have really resounded and resonated this year. Lorde brought the long-awaited Green Light earlier in the year. There was so much fever and build around that song.

The video arrived and instantly made an impact. It is not as grand in concept – compared with Kendrick Lamar – but it relies on a sense of triumph and confident imagery. The heroine barely smiles throughout but, whether skipping the street or hanging out of a car window – she is commanding, compelling and completely free. Haim’s Right Now saw its video directed by the legendary Paul Thomas Anderson. It sees the girls in the studio as they call up their mum's old student as he comes by and says "Why don't I just record a video right now?". Anderson shot the video in a single take – or near-as-dammit – and captures the girls perfectly. Their parts and performances are given gorgeous treatment as we get a glimpse into the recording process – based on a wonderful premise and backstory.

Kesha’s Praying, like Taylor Swift's video, gained a lot of success because of its sense of reaction and build. Following the court case with Dr. Luke and the attention that case gained; it was inevitable a video whose song addresses the turmoil and torment Kesha went through – it was always going to be huge and get into the forefront. Regardless of whether an artist has a big reputation or budget: a great video can arrive from any direction. The ones I have mentioned – aside from Kesha and Swift, perhaps – have succeeded because of their concepts and creativity. It shows even the bigger artists are not ignoring the importance of videos and making a statement. One can argue the fact these videos got big is because of the millions that support the artists. I am not interested in popularity and streaming figures – more the quality and role videos play in these times. Charli XCX’s Boys saw, um…boys doing various things.

These were no ordinary boys: these were big celebrities in rare and unfamiliar settings. Showing Pop music can have a sense of fun and playfulness – we see Joe Jonas with a milk moustache; Stormzy eating cereal and Mac DeMarco licking a guitar (as one does). It has sexy images and comedic moments; a lovable and fun-loving charm that subverted expectations one would have had. Rather than cavort with boys and create a sexual and sweaty video: Charli XCX went for something more creative, intelligent and wise. It got huge figures but, more than that, showed one does not need to sell videos through sex and easy routes - big artists do not need to have enormous concepts and budgets to make a celebrated video.


IN THIS PHOTO: A shot from the video for Charli XCX's Boys

There are so many great videos from underground artists – it would be a Herculean feat naming them and finding the best. To mainstream artists; they always need to make a video in order to make their songs more visible – it is part of the marketing route and one cannot release a song without making a video (unless you want it to pass people by). I am always against those videos that go for the sex angle: artists exploiting their assets to get the YouTube roof bursting. It is rather cheap and raises questions about morality and ethics. I wonder whether artists like Taylor Swift, in a video so symbol-heavy, has the right approach. If one wants an innocent and stunningly unexpected video this year go to Jay-Z’s The Story of O.J. I feel Swift could have learned something from that video – it is a Disney-esque/Mickey Mouse animation that adds new spin and angles to a fascinating artist. Look What You Made Me Do is all about symbols, controversy and enigmas.

Nobody remembered the storyline (if there was one) and it seems like the exercise was a chance to get people speculating and gossiping. I admire those big artists that do something inspiring and important with a video. Those who want to connect with fans and promote something positive should be applauded. Regardless of how much money their teams have: something simple and honest can do a lot more than a multi-million-dollar visual extravaganza. It is wonderful seeing a blend of Kendrick Lamar grandeur and a more modest Jay-Z film. We do not leer MTV and tune in for the big video of the week. We have sites like YouTube so are less reliant on T.V. for providing visuals in music. I wonder whether the sheer volume of music videos out there makes it harder to decipher the best – there are so many treasures waiting to be discovered.

This applies more to the newer artists who have a choice regarding music videos: they do not need to release one and it can often cost too much to even consider. I sympathise with them and hope, one day, more money is reserved for new artists who want to release a video. Most make do with a modest budget but you can get some really incredible examples coming through. They do not get the same views and attention as the mainstream stars but, in many ways, finer work is being created in the underground. Videos are a massively important way of showcasing an artist and allowing them license to create something magic. I would love to see a music channel – on YouTube or elsewhere – reserved for new artists and their videos. Every time I do a review/interview, and there is a video attached, I am amazed by the dexterity, resourcefulness and imagination of our best artists.

Many only have a few-hundred-quid and have to stretch that budget to a number of different people. It is getting easier and easier to stream a video but harder to get them made in the first place. Many yearn to have the same opportunity as the mainstream artists. All the acts I feature love videos and that chance to add a visual dynamic to their art. Many people write songs a certain way because they imagine a video in their head. One cannot write a song without imagining it and seeing how it will come to life. Even if you are a newcomer and on your first album; there is still the chance to do something incredible and striking. I will leave this piece and, as this year has (already) seen so many senses-striking videos – from the big and humble – it shows how much importance is placed on that side of the industry.



Whether you see videos as a way of cynically marketing and engaging in popularity contests – one cannot deny how inspiring a wonderful video can be. I know the best of the underground can, with the right backing, conceive and create videos that endure for years to come. I think there is a division in the mainstream between those who are unconcerned with trending – and release videos that are there to amaze and compel – and those more concerned with grabbing headlines. That is always going to be the way but, whatever the motives, the video is as important (if not, more so) than it has ever been. I feel, although they don’t need to, many new artists realise how important platforms like YouTube are. Journalists and fans are attracted to songs because of videos, to a large extent.

I love to see a video as it embodies the story and emotions of the song – allowing the listener to appreciate the song in a new light. Because of this; I hope more subsidy and expenditure goes the way of new music. Anyone who questions whether videos have validity or worth should look at the incredible array out there right now. In a lot of cases; a video can be more memorable and celebrated than the song it accompanies. I love the medium and think, if new artists had the ability to make more ambitious videos, they would ascend to the mainstream a lot quicker. Whether it is a reactionary video or one loaded with symbolism; a comedic piece or one that engages the brain; one cannot deny the music video…

PLAYS a vital role in the music industry.