Music Video and the Audiovisual Turn
by Carol Vernallis — Stanford University
June 12, 2012 – 12:57
MTV’s launch was thirty years ago. Music video has since undergone shifts in technologies and platforms. It has seen periods of intense cross-pollination with other media, financial booms and busts, and changing levels of audience engagement. While music videos hit a low point at the start of the new millenium, they have reemerged as a key driver of popular culture. This resurgence resembles MTV’s first moment: it’s again worth asking what music video can do and where it fits.
To really know music video we’d have to study this thirty-year history: we’d need to consider musical genres’ cycles of maturation, auteurs’ interests and influence, and the ways audiences use videos. By tracking the image’s response to music’s changing production practices, and vice versa, we begin to grasp a broader audiovisual turn. Comparison of the beginnings and the present might show vast differences in performance style, formal conceits, editing, depictions of space, the showcasing of new technologies-or it might not.
Today’s music videos offer ways to understand the audiovisual turn, especially when we consider them as part of a media swirl that includes postclassical cinema, video games, commercials and YouTube. Music video may be changing: some videos suggest new forms of narrative, like Jonas Akerlund’s video for Lady Gaga’s "Telephone," Floria Sigismondi’s video for Katy Perry’s "E.T.,” and Francis Lawrence’s and Lady Gaga’s "Bad Romance." These are made by transmedia directors who have returned to the genre after making films. While music video has long showcased technical devices, like the Quantel and the snorkel cam, Arev Manoukian’s and Skrillex’s "The Devil’s Den" suggests what can be done with the Red Epic. Digital technologies make possible new formal conceits. Color sweeps across Romain Gavras’s "No Church in the Wild." In Mark Pellington’s "Skyscraper," haze and smoke become players.
Freer from censorship today, Gavras and Kanye ("No Church in the Wild") and Alan Ferguson and Rise Against ("Help Is on the Way") produce politically engaged clips. Matsoukas’s and Beyonce’s "Why Don’t You Love Me" and Gibson’s and Lady Gaga’s "You and I" suggest new possibilities of representation. Interactive clips like Vincent Morisset’s and Arcade Fire’s "Sprawl II" extend the genre’s boundaries. And prosumers’ clips go further, suggesting that music video is simply a relation of sound and image we recognize as such.
Transmedia artists who gravitated to film when music video budgets were low have returned for love of the genre. Their knowledge informs today’s music videos.