Music Video -- some debates


To summarise some possible interpretations, very quickly, music videos are very diverse, as you will know, probably far better than I do. They can be seen as documentary-like records of performances, as 'extended advertisements', as popular art forms, virtually indistinguishable from prestige experimental shorts (Peter Gabriel videos are often cited here, or those produced by experimental filmmakers like the Brothers Quay (on the Aardman Animations collection tape)or Derek Jarman for the Pet Shop Boys),or as witty, self-referential filmic texts (Madonna videos or The Making of Thriller).Amid the complexity, there have been at least two main frameworks developed to help us read these videos.

Marxist readings

The first one draws on marxist work on popular music and popular culture. try file on Althusser or Gramsci Although the details vary, it is fair to say that this approach sees the music video in terms of the familiar techniques of consumer capitalism, embedded still in a mode of production. A music video can be grasped as an advertisement to promote specific commodities (songs or groups), as a means to involve and manipulate viewers (so as to deliver an audience or to widen and build one). Writers like Jhally (in Angus and Jhally 1989) or Straw (in Frith et al 1993) emphasise these commercial aspects and see music videos as offering a chance to harness some new technology and to exploit new market opportunities.

If the visual components add anything, they are best understood as attempts to domesticate the meaning of rock music, to win back control over the subversive elements of rock (which usually expressed themselves best in live concert performances). The Hendrix performance of Electric Stars and Stripes (the one he delivered at Woodstock), say could be read as a subversive attempt to redefine American nationhood to include references to drugs, youth, urban riots, and above all, black hippies like himself, and the performance also broke the neat and tidy boundaries of packaged music - it straggled out of a kind of ragged jam session, with references to Hey Joe, it went on far longer than the standard three and a half minutes, and it looked like it was just Hendrix and a few other musicians playing for themselves and their fans, 'authentically'. The visuals that accompany the playing offer a roaming scan over the emptying fields at Woodstock, depictions of the few scruffy rock fans left, some still camping or smoking among piles of rubbish.

On rock videos that feature 'performance clips' as Goodwin calls them (Frith et al 1993), (such as Huey Lewis's and the News' The Power of  Love, to take one I have viewed recently) the whole performance is edited, mixed, standardised, sanitised, and delivered with a range of cliché shots of the audience looking beautiful, young, sexy and ecstatic ,just as the record companies want them: no hints of any subversive drug taking youthful rebellion here, and only carefully staged scenes of 'authenticity' in the performer as they play for a select audience, for the camera, and, probably, for the fourth or fifth take.

The rock video might also represent another stage in the struggle between commerce and artistic expression, in another variant of the myth of subversion: as Straw points out, you need substantial funds to make a video (far more than the apocryphal bedroom demo tape that led to fame and fortune on the John Peel show), and record companies can use videos to stress the value of specific songs rather than groups or individual artistes. This limits any autonomy (and high earnings) that established stars could claim, which was one of the themes in the recent court case over the contract between George Michael and Sony Corporation.

Those songs can be surrounded by definitely ideological signifiers (especially those centred on young female bodies), or, more recently the signifiers of 'art', added by 'someone who's read a coffee-table book on Magritte and has probably seen a few film noirs' according to an interview by Scarlett-Davis, cited in Berland (in Frith et al 1993). In this way 'music video ...result[s] in a diminishing of the interpretive liberty of the individual music listener' in Straw's summary of such criticism (Frith et al 1993:3).

As is the way of marxist analysis, especially its gramscian variant, a more optimistic reading is also possible, however. Here, to borrow Fiske's particular arguments, (Fiske 1987, 1989a 1989b) music video shares the dilemmas of much modern television output: briefly, in order to be popular, such output must avoid too closed a set of meanings. Instead, it must seek to become deliberately open, to leave room for the viewers' own meanings, to become 'producerly' rather than 'writerly'. There is a structured potential for 'recontextualisation' to revert to Straw's commentary for a moment, the ability for the viewer to deny the preferred meanings of a video (in this case), and to add their own. This is lent strength by the other main theme Fiske borrowed from Barthes, which we have discussed earlier - the shift to the audience as the sole producers of meaning. This adds the necessary competencies to the structured possibilities, so to speak. Finally, there is a popular cultural capital too which empowers viewers and enables them to resist bourgeois meanings. Together, these add up to a picture of the audience as able and willing to impose alternative, and even subversive meanings on the open and playful texts they see and know so well.

Some artists are particularly adept at manipulating the possibilities too, hence the admiration of Fiske (and many others - eg see Schwichtenburg 1993)) for Madonna videos which, a close analysis will reveal, look as if they simply reproduce conventional themes of sexiness or romance, but which really subvert both of these by clever ambiguities, ironies and a skilled playfulness which 'purifies commodities into signifiers' (Fiske 1989a:192). Young women in the audience have responded, according to Fiske, and have begun to use music videos as raw materials for their own decidedly empowering fantasies and their own daily sexual politics, in a kind of escalation of consciousness begun by the Madonna video.

There are, of course, problems with this analysis as many commentators have pointed out (including me in Harris 1992). Straw offers two main problems: first that recontextualisers are going to be limited in their abilities to reinterpret music videos by their own levels of 'ingenuity and connoisseurship' (Frith et al 1993:19), and secondly by casting doubt about the escalation scenario. It is more likely, says Straw, that the playful identities on offer will be experienced 'serially' (ie one after the other) and pluralistically, that they will be compartmentalized and managed without producing any crisis (as suggested in earlier chapters). In practice, it is going to be very hard to know which types of viewers are going to dominate -- the newly-radicalised Madonna fans Fiske quotes, or the types depicted in Beavis and Butthead.

It is possible to work in another theme here too, by considering the work of 'socially conscious' rock musicians, especially that of Peter Gabriel. Gabriel's videos have won awards for their artistic qualities, and their deployment of avant-garde or experimental techniques. Sledgehammer, for example, displayed the work of award-winning animators like Aardman Animations and the Brothers Quay: the video used a characteristic form of animation involving the use of everyday objects like vegetables or furniture in a technique clearly borrowed from the Czech surrealist and dissident Jan Svankmajer. Gabriel continued to innovate and experiment, of course, and has recently developed a (rare) multi-media innovation in the CD-i/rock video.

In his collection Talking about US, the actual videos are accompanied by some discussion about the processes of making them. In the case of The Blood of Eden, Gabriel tells us that the theme is one of unity and separation between men and women, and his hope for a reunion, using the Biblical story about the Fall. These ideas were amended and developed in discussion with a number of advisers and directors and with his co-performer on the video Sinead O'Connor. The sculptor Zadok
Ben-David's work had been admired by Gabriel, and he was commissioned to produce some sculptures for the set, symbolising the Garden of Eden. There were other more pragmatic decisions to be taken too -- lack of money also helped determine the simplicity of the set, and the directorial team also applied their specialist knowledge to insist on a black screen technique (rather than a blue one) for the inserts, for example, or to decide to shoot some scenes on miniature sets (involving the reproduction in miniature of some of Ben-David's sculptures).

Although we have only these short discussions by the participants to guide us, accounts like this seem to be describing the effects of a 'production formation' rather like the one identified in the Bennett and Woollacott analysis of Bond movies discussed above. A similar conclusion can be drawn from the detailed discussions of the production of music videos for Wham!! (BFI 1989) Do these mixtures of artistic inputs and specialist aesthetics lead to the same conclusions as for Bond movies -- that we have here a process of disembedding, of emerging cultural autonomy away from any immediate connections with commercialism and thence ideology?

It is clear that marxist analysis could interpret these apparently autonomous artistic endeavours in terms of the old debates about reproduction and incorporation, as Goodwin (1987) clearly recommends. We have hinted at this debate earlier, and much turns on whether the artistic experimental elements are sufficient to escape the controls of the culture industry concerned, whether they can indeed force a moment of shock in the viewer, or whether they will be interpreted simply as titillation or pleasurable scandal. Whatever the case in general, there are good reasons for being pessimistic with music videos specifically, says Goodwin, since the music part of the music video is so conservative, as we shall see.

There are exceptions, of course. Goodwin (1987) refers to the role of rock music in raising consciousness via Live Aid, and there are lively struggles over gender identities for both men and women in music TV (see the pieces by Walser and Lewis respectively in Frith et al. 1993),
which provides a reading based on micropolitics or 'struggle' within the processes of production itself.. But these are the exceptions.

Postmodernist readings file on this too
The discussion of playful artistic elements also serves to get to the second dominant framework for analysis -- postmodernism. Since Kaplan's famous book on MTV (Kaplan 1987), it has been common to cite the music video as a key example of postmodern style on television (as, for example, does Lash 1988), although Kaplan herself expresses many reservations about this analysis in her book, and is generally critical. If we use the check-list technique discussed earlier, though, we can find a match between the characteristic styles of postmodernist television and many music videos. Goodwin (in Frith et al 1993:46), offers just such a check-list   -- the collapse of boundaries between high art and popular culture (as we were discussing just above), the abandonment of conventionally realist representations and narratives (both in individual videos and in collections of them in MTV slots), a bewildering variety of modes of address to viewers favouring a schizophrenic rather than a stable viewing position, substantial amounts of intertextual references and pastiches of earlier videos and rock styles, a flattening out of the past into a continuous present, and an abandonment of any kind of political engagement, comment or analysis.

Goodwin and others in the Frith collection proceed to demolish this simple recognition technique, however. To be brief, it all turns on a process of selectively emphasising the visual elements of music videos and ignoring the music altogether. The music is far more conservative, still typically a classic song lasting the regulation three and a half minutes, still with the usual tightly structured patterns of verses and chorus, repetitions and standardised scales, still with noticeably standard themes in the lyrics -- romance, youthful distress, sentimentality and paranoia , 'big world and little me' (to cite Berland in Frith et al. 1993).

The musical form structures the visual images in ways which cannot be seen very easily if you are coming to the music video from classical film theory, say s Goodwin. In the easiest example, the music video confines itself to the limits of the song and becomes a mere little text on a discrete tape, rather than, say the really experimental forms found in 'installation art'. More subtly, visuals can imitate the conventions of modern rock performances, with characteristic crescendos (explosions, bursts of light) and lighting effects. This helps understand the more difficult examples -- the emotional strategies of popular music affect the flow of images too, in musical versions of narratives. We have already discussed one aspect of this, perhaps, in Frith's earlier discussion of the overlay edit technique in video as an analogy of the mixing of tracks in music. The absence of classic film-type narratives has been misinterpreted as an absence of any kind of narrative structure, and the intertextual elements should also be understood musically (there are many types of intertextual reference anyway, Goodwin reminds us in his 1987 piece, including tributes, quotes, homage, and, for that matter, still some old-fashioned parody).

In a similar way, MTV can not be grasped simply as a manifestation of a postmodernist sensibility somehow struggling to express itself, but as a definite development of the music industry. Again, to be brief, 'postmodernism' is best seen in an early phase of MTV, associated with a particular style of music and innovative videos associated with 'New Pop' in the early 1980s. MTV very rapidly diversified and became more conventional under market pressures, leaving 'pomo rock' as a mere sales category (rather like its predecessor 'college radio'), or 'Postmodern MTV' as a conventional attempt to partition the viewing audience(Goodwin 1991). Straw and the others in Frith et al 1993, and other commentators like Laing 1985 offer a detailed materialist analysis of this kind to explain, to their satisfaction at least, the twists and turns of the marketing strategies of the music industry, including its rather extended experiments with film and video before MTV, as embedding many of the apparently autonomous cultural changes visible in music television.

Although writers like Kaplan, Jhally, Goodwin, Frith and Laing disagree about these interpretations, what does seem common to them is a view that an 'external' analysis based on either dominant ideologies or subcultural values will not do. Nor will it do to read off the strange styles on view in some music videos as the product of some 'postmodernist' sensibility. Instead we should shift to complex and concrete analysis of the production conditions of the music video - the precise blend of inputs from the recording companies, the stars, the directors,  and the artists, musicians, engineers and technologists (eg the computer graphics specialists).

The audience remains to be investigated, and the viewing conditions, but there is one final argument in favour of what Frith calls a 'production aesthetics' approach. Many fans are musicians themselves, actively playing music for fun and as part of a wider fantasy (Frith in Grossberg et al. 1992): the production of music serves as an element of the context in which fans consume professionally produced music, in other words.

Angus, I. and Jhally, S. (eds) (1989) Cultural Politics in Contemporary America, New York: Routledge.
BFI (1989) Wham! Wrapping : teaching the media, London: BFI Publications.
Fiske, J. (1987) Television Culture, London: Routledge.
----- (1989a) Reading the Popular, London: Unwin Hyman.
-----(1989b) Understanding Popular Culture, London: Unwin Hyman.
Frith, S., Goodwin, A. and Grossberg, L.. (eds) (1993) Sound and Vision The Music Video Reader, London: Routledge.
Goodwin, A. (1987) 'Music Video in the (Post) Modern World', Screen 28, 3:36--55.
----- (1991) 'Popular Music and Post-Modern Theory' , Cultural Studies 5, 2:174--203.
Grossberg, L., Nelson, C., and Treichler, P. (eds) (1992) Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge.
Kaplan, E-A. (1987) Rocking Around the Clock London: Methuen.
Laing, D. (1985) 'Music Video -- Industrial Product, Cultural Form', Screen 26, 2:78--84.
Lash, S. (1988) 'Discourse or Figure? Postmodernism as a "Regime of Signification"', Theory, Culture and Society, 5, 2--3:311--36.
Schwichtenberg, C. (ed) (1993) The Madonna Connection: representational politics, subcultural identities and cultural theory, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.



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