Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Video Question

Recently, when I posted about musical "soul" a new reader, Lincoln Hunter, posed this excellent question as a result of a video I embedded:

Why does so much music come with a video? Do I need it if I have a soul for music? Isn't the video a diversion, a distraction? Am I not being manipulated by the video? . . .  I really would like to hear someone explain the use of video with a piece of music. Perhaps you will have time to answer in a post in the future.
Why marry music to video, indeed? In my response to Lincoln, I mentioned that I prefer music on its own terms -- as a lone art form. But, I am certainly a member of the video generation . . .

At some point in 1981, I flopped on the couch in my uncle's TV room and flicked the set on (via the early cable box with all of the elliptical buttons neatly in a row). This is what I saw (No need to watch it all -- you'll get the point quickly. As a side note, I'd love to know what the hell the drummer was doing. Had he heard the song before? Is he trying to seduce his hi-hats? Watch him for a laugh):

I had no idea what I was watching. I was one confused thirteen-year-old. My jaw hung slack; head cocked sideways. Right after it was over, an astronaut jammed a flag into the moonsand. The flag said: MTV. This was the start of something new, of course. This was the time when "video" changed from a simple medium of information conveyance into a new art form: "a video" -- a music video. (In the case of "Lunatic Fringe," of course, there is not much merit either in the video or the song. An across the board yawn. Still, it is interesting how the video manages to be, paradoxically, embarrassingly literal and laughably nonsensical.)

On that night in 1981, I wasn't aware of this one yet, but it had been -- prophetically and perhaps prescriptively --  the first video ever played on MTV: "Video Killed the Radio Star":

It was clear that even the early video makers themselves didn't really know what they were up to. Mostly, they were synching random images to music, unsure of what they could really add. Though, you have to give some credit to the director of the Buggles video for at least metaphorically blowing up a radio -- and some credit to the band, by the way. They were pretty good, lead by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who have been associated with Yes at various times

Over the years, videos have pretty much been like the ones above -- either random or, to some degree, conceptual -- or they have simply captured performances. There is a difference. I have always appreciated performance videos more than concept videos -- I like the music to give me images based on my own imagination, not someone else's, or, I like to watch the musicians because I can learn from them or, simply experience the added communication of emotion their physical performance allows.

But I have to admit, there have been some videos that have moved me deeply, in conjunction with the music. Here's one that brought me to tears, literally, the first time I saw it and it still moves me. I'm not a Johnny Cash fan and I am not a Nine Inch Nails fan. The success, here, is a result of the combination of Trent Reznor's song and Cash's performance, both as a singer and as an actor -- though, I'm not sure how much acting is really going on here. But, mostly, I credit Mark Romanek, the director, for a profound vision and masterful editing. If you can, watch it straight-through, up loud, with eyes riveted to the screen:

I just think that is brilliant. And, yes, it just hit me hard again.

See, to me, there is no such thing as a bad art form. Genius will shine through, in whatever medium. This works, for me.

It seems to me that the director of the video has, at least, to equal the merit of the song or, at best,  to improve upon it, as I believe Romanek does in the Cash video.

But music is powerful enough. Adding pictures of sunsets and clouds to a Ravel piece is, to me, a distraction and it feels manipulative, as Lincoln points out. When it comes to music of Ravel's level -- well, the Buggles and Johnny Cash simply are not Ravel. When the music is sublime alone, watching a video along with it is like reading a comic book while sitting in the Sistine Chapel.

In the end, if the video is not directed by someone with real vision, like Romanek, it is better to leave the music alone, or to show the musicians performing. (But never straight lip-synching. If I were king, lip-synch perfoming would be punishable by five months in the tower of never-ending itchiness.)

When all is said and done, I'd trade it all for a pair of good headphones, closed eyes and the reactions of my own mind.

I'd love to hear other perspectives on music and video . . .


  1. Mr. Matt, spot on my friend. I think the problem is when new technology or possibilities hit, they just try to do too much with them. For instance, does Yogi bear really have to be 3D, and computer generated? Is it really going to be better than the cartoons? I don't think so. Conceptual videos, I believe follow this pattern. It ends up with the idea of "hey, I've got three minutes to try and impress people. Let's do something that has never been done before." This type of video usually results in scantily clad women, flashy lights, and ridiculous imagery that really just leaves the viewer confused. I didn't know the piece of moldy cheese meant rebirth will only come when the children sing, I thought it was a moldy piece of cheese. If videos are not directly related to the song, they really do nothing more than distract. The Cash video matches imagery with lyrics directly. There is no interpreting, there is only reacting. Twisted Sisters "We're Not Gonna Take It," though not exactly to the same artistic quality as the Cash video, does the same thing. It's a kid rebelling against his parents while guys in make up sing angrily. It makes sense. Music has so many levels in itself, from lyrics, to melody, to variations on chords, and background sound effects, that trying to interpret a song and a bizarre concept video just isn't possible in three to four minutes.
    Another thought is are videos so ridiculous now to try and improve on bad music? Maybe that's why there are flashy lights and almost naked women. Think about most music, and their subsequent videos. A video cannot improve a song, it can really only enhance it. Or destroy it. Well that's my half cocked rant for the day. Hope everyone had a happy holiday and be safe with New Years coming up.

  2. Good points. But I do think the Cash video is quite interpretive of the lyrics . . . give it another look. In this case it works well. I almost have to wonder if Cash gave the director the idea of the layers he wanted to put on the tune, which, on its own could be just a self-indulgent angsty rant . . .

  3. Chris, I appreciate y0ur thoughts on the value of music video. I can see the the future of entertainment (even learning) is going to be visual. Each day more and more life is gleaned from or entered into visual screens.
    Perhaps there will be more of the type of music video you describe. A collaboration between music and visual arts to create a work where picture and sound provide a valuable marriage of the two elements. A three or four minute version of a stage musical, the telling of a story. Personally I hope it can be done without the quick cuts, the near subliminal even epileptic quality so many videos (and TV commercials) seem to use.
    Two final notes:
    In the 1950's TV had a program called Hit Parade. Each week the top songs would be played while actorsmoved or danced through scenery that was supposed to represent or at least be related to the sontent of the song. Perhaps this was music video in its primitive beginnings?
    Finally, I have an idea for the near perfect music video. In 1962 David Rose and his orchestra had a major hit called The Stripper. Now that would make a fine music video!

  4. I like tha video idea for Rose's hit. Ha! Now that you mention him, Rose is a composer who is so underrated. My father, an orchestrator and composer himself, always says that David Rose was incapable or writing a bad note. His score work on Little House on the Prairie is flawless. Which, I suppose, leads to an other kind of "music video" question: the film score. There is a futre blog for me. The film score is a dying art right now. Jerry Goldsmith's death signaled the end of a wonderful era for an American dominated art form.