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Best of the Web: Music video's wild ride

Best of the Web: Music video’s wild ride

After a lapse in my music video addiction, a number of music videos this year reminded me of my love for music videos. With memories of Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon in a post-apocalyptic future wearing what must have been the inspiration for Seinfeld’s puffy white shirt (don’t laugh! It was the ’80s) to watching Michael Jackson turning into a zombie, music videos have always been a source of entertainment, inspiration, escapism and fantasy for me. When the Music Television network launched in 1981, it didn’t have a single reality show. MTV was a 24-hour-a-day music channel, and the first video it played was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, interesting considering that in the near future, the Internet would nearly kill the radio stars. Since that day, the music video has been on quite a wild ride.

Artists have been combining music with visual elements at least since the days of the “talkies,” when sound was first added to cinema. People became accustomed to seeing Elvis Presley and the Beatles on television. Music videos were around before MTV; the channel just took the concept mainstream. The early versions of MTV’s logo were often cartoony, hand drawn and almost scribbled. I remember drawing my own versions of the logo — MTV had a sort of a lo-fi, do-it-yourself sensibility.

A couple years later, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video wasn’t just something to complement the music. The visual artistry rose to cinematic quality; the music video became a heavy contender; “Thriller” was a story in itself.

Visions of zombies dancing in the street, Weezer transported to Al’s Diner in “Happy Days,” Britney Spears gyrating — popular images like these became a regular part of the public consciousness. According to Nielsen, viewership for MTV’s music video show “Total Request Live” peaked at almost 800,000 viewers a day. Musicians could harness the power of television to sell records; videos could put artists on the map; people got noticed, and albums were sold; the music videos were a hit and everyone was cashing in. Flush with money, music videos grew in scale.  Directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry upped the creative ante by constructing fantastically whimsical and imaginative worlds with much of the same lo-fidelity, do-it-yourself sensibility that MTV started with. Budgets eventually soared: The one for Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” ticked in around $7 million.

Over the next decade or so, additional technology would disrupt everything. Distribution and revenue models would never be the same. The invention of MP3 files made it much easier for people to share music online, and album sales became anemic. The industry and the musicians had to reinvent themselves. With people stealing music or buying singles rather than albums, industry revenue took a dive; there was no longer a need for lavish music videos to sell albums. Nobody was getting paid; “TRL” was canceled; there were fewer and fewer outlets for music videos; MTV stopped playing music videos altogether.

Then came the band OK Go and their video “Here It Goes Again.” The same technology that nearly killed the radio stars enabled new faces to come onto the market. OK Go’s catchy tune, matched with synchronized treadmill dancing, was novel and fun, and regardless of the cheap set with aluminum foil on the walls, it racked up millions of views — making it the most downloaded music video of its time. So technology did it again: What was once cost prohibitive became more accessible.  The ability to shoot and edit without a huge production and crew was becoming a reality, enabling bands like OK Go to put out their own visual content. Although rough around the edges, creativity flowed; they got the word out.

Today nearly everyone can choose where they get their content. Instead of a monolithic mainstream, now there seemingly infinite sources of content, and standing out has become more important. Music video budgets are paltry compared with the mid-’90s, but videos like “Here It Goes Again” proved that the right content could still attract an audience.

Fast forward to Dec. 21, 2012: Hilarious, not-so-svelte South Korean pop star Psy’s “Gangnam Style” galloped its way to become the first YouTube video to reach 1 billion views. As technology progresses, creators’ external limitations fall away. HTML5 put Arcade Fire fans inside the “Wilderness Downtown” video. The Johnny Cash project is a living and continually changing music video of the song “Ain’t No Grave,” a project that invites the audience to paint individual frames of the video and incorporates them.

After what seems like a music video vacuum, the crop of music videos released this year makes me think the ride is far from over.

“Wishes”: Eric Wareheim, of Tim & Eric comedy duo fame, made a music video for the band Beach House that’s a surreal and very weird cinematic homage to the Friday night football game. Inspired, indeed.

“Hello Again”: Beck went all out in his reimagination of David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision.” With a 170-piece orchestra, the project is an interactive 360-degree experimental Internet video concert.

“Like a Rolling Stone”: Bob Dylan, the man I thought would be the least likely to embrace the flash of new technology, released an interactive website to coincide with the release of his 47-disc anthology. The site received more than 1 million views on the first day.

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