Mumblings About Music Videos

When I was in middle school, I would ask my friends to copy “English songs” to my flash drive. I would then take them home and listen to them for hours as I played around with my computer. When there was a song I specially liked (Numb, Perfect, The Reason, Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing) so much that I would be able to recite the lyrics forward and backward, I would be desperate to find out if the song had a music video and what it was like. You see, I grew up listening to Bollywood songs (not all of whose music videos end up on /r/BollywoodRealism) and Hindi pop songs, most of which had music videos. The former would usually be just clips from a movie or actors dancing, usually somewhere in Switzerland. The latter, however, would sometimes be pretty entertaining (try this, this, this, and this; disclaimer: Might need major cultural context). So I was used to expecting music videos and being “English songs”, they “obviously” would have to have really cool videos. So, in the age of 56K dialup Internet, I would fire up YouTube and wait an hour for a music video to buffer and then watch it and if I liked it, wait another hour for it to download.

And the videos I did download and watch did not disappoint. While I didn’t understand anything about depression or what self-harm even was, I really liked Numb. It had a story going on plus watching Chester (RIP) scream is always a treat. And we’re all no stranger to the heist from The Reason. I even made an “alternate” video for The Reason with a bunch of slideshows of random “love-like” pictures and footages and emo texts.

The thing is, I’ve always had a thing for stories. Short stories, novels, movies, TV shows, I’ve always felt a special affinity to fiction. But music videos were different. They were something more. There are two things going on in music videos that really get me excited. First, music really is what feelings sound like. But when there’s a clip of people experiencing those emotions, it somehow heightens those feelings. It’s fun to scream how I can’t be perfect really thinking about my own imperfections and how I’ve let others down but seeing a group of teenagers scream on the roof, and a tight shot of other teenagers struggling with teenage angst, depression, feeling left-out, feeling lonely, and how they have disappointed their parents, it really materializes those feelings and makes me feel connected. I feel connected to the actors and in that process, to the music itself.  So music videos, for me, are means to relate to the music, to really feel it in my psyche.

But that begs a question about the content of a music video. There’s plenty of music videos out there for which there is no way to connect the music to the video. After all, a music video, fundamentally, is just a marketing tool to sell the record and the only requirement is that it be provoking in some way; it’s sole motive is to get people to notice the record and hopefully buy them or listen to them more. So what’s the best music video? Something that gets the most number of people talking about it. Not surprisingly, Madonna’s Justify My Love, blacklisted by MTV at one point, is the best-selling music video single of all time [1]

But while record artists and music executives might be happy with that definition of the perfect music video, I feel otherwise. Like I said earlier, a music video is a way for me to feel closer to the music and so relevancy matters. The immediate example that comes to mind is Miley Cyrus’s Wrecking Ball. There’s this question on Quora Would you be proud of a daughter like Miley Cyrus? and I really like this answer. To quote one relevant paragraph,

I didn’t pay very much attention to Miley overall but I remember the song that really caught my attention by her was Wrecking Ball. I of course knew about her break up and how it had affected her and knew that the song was discussing that. I found myself really admiring the depth of the lyrics and really took her serious as an artist. Unfortunately, it was and still is hard for me to take the song seriously as a result of the music video associated with it. I know that this song meant something to Miley, as she has cried in the past during its performance but the music video seemed to be a cheap attempt to garner views. Rather than the video complementing the emotion and depth of the song, I felt like they were in competition with one another. Was I supposed to be seeing Miley the artist who wrote this song, or Miley the girl making out with a sledge hammer?

This paragraph sums up how I feel about Wrecking Ball’s video really well. Wrecking Ball is a very successful video by any conventional measure but it fails me personally because not only does it not help me connect to the music, it actually distracts from it.

Then there are videos which aren’t as bold and controversial but still have nothing to do with the music. Linkin Park’s In the End has a cool video but sans some exercise in literary interpretation, the video seems to have little to do with the song. And while I do love The Reason, it falls in the same category. They’re not bad videos in any way. And they bid pretty well in their real purpose of being marketing tools. They just don’t serve my specific idea of what a music video is supposed to do. And looks like other people might have similar ideas about the purpose of music videos as well.

And then there are music videos which are relevant to the song, tell a story, leave the viewer touched, and more often than not actually change how the viewer feels about the music. And that brings up a lot of interesting questions and discussions. I’ve always felt that a music video is a really good test platform for would-be writers and directors. Just ask David Fincher or Michel Gondry. You’ve got roughly five minutes and some degree of constraint from the song to tell a story. You really need to make a tight film with little room for things that don’t add to the story. Plus you don’t get to use dialogues. So you really need to be careful about every frame, every shot you present.

I’m using relevancy as a metric for what I consider to be a good video but the thing about relevancy is that it’s a pretty low bar. Music videos, like many forms of art, are inherently subjective and often it’s an exercise in creativity (and stretching) to find how a certain video relates to its music. But that’s part of the beauty. The writer and the director get to interpret a song in any way they like and they can use that interpretation as a scaffolding for the story they tell. And then the audience gets to interpret it in their own way. And that interpretation does not necessarily need to match the interpretation of the song itself, especially if the viewer listens to just the song before watching the video. In fact, the interpretation of a song and of a video affect each other. An interpretation of a video affects how you interpret the song and vice versa. Skim the lyrics of The Lumineer’s Sleep on the Floor. The first and last paragraph is:

Pack yourself a toothbrush dear
Pack yourself a favorite blouse
Take a withdrawal slip
Take all of your savings out
‘Cause if we don’t leave this town
We might never make it out
I was not born to drown
Baby come on

So the song seems to be about eloping together, about escaping certain realities in search of others. It has a hopeful ting to it. It sings about starting fresh with someone you (probably/hopefully) love. It’s about a new journey that begins with packing your bags and leaving a lot of things behind but also searching for new things to hold on to.

Now go and watch the video here. Now maybe listen to the song again? Did having watched the video somehow change how you now interpret the song? Did it change how you feel about the song? Change what feelings it generated inside you? Music is what feelings sound like. But did that sound change because of the video?

For me, it definitely did. I discovered the song on Play Music and I interpreted it as a happy, hopeful song. But after watching the video, I can’t help but think of the song as a lament of loss and what could-have-been’s and missed chances. It looks back and thinks of an alternate reality, that if you had been courageous, or foolish depending on how you see it, enough to give a chance would have made your life so different.

Let’s take another example. Read the lyrics of Kodaline’s All I Want. If you want to actually listen to it without the video, click here.

All I want is nothing more
To hear you knocking at my door
‘Cause if I could see your face once more
I could die a happy man I’m sure

When you said your last goodbye
I died a little bit inside
I lay in tears in bed all night
Alone without you by my side

Take a minute to think about the lyrics. Now go and watch its video here. Now think about if the video affected how you view the song.

But wait, they actually made another video for the song. Watch it here. After watching the second video, did you feel differently about the song? The same? Why? Were you surprised? If yes, what expectations had the lyrics, or the first video, build that the second video break? If no, is there a common thread between the two videos that connected it to the lyrics and what the song means? Why do you think they created two videos for the same song?

The last question posits another question. Why do people create music videos? The canonical answer, as discussed in the beginning of this essay, is to promote their music. But why did Kodaline create two videos for the same song then? What’s more, why do so many music videos feel more like short movies rather than them just showing something bold and controversial to get people talking about them? Or even just a shot of the band members playing the song, like in Faint?

I don’t know the answer. But I think, part of it lies in the faulty assumption that music videos have to serve just one purpose. Sure, they originated as a way to promote their music and it’s probably still the main reason why people create music videos. But at another level, music is a form of self-expression. It’s a medium to give voice to people’s feelings and a music video provides another way to do that. Together with the song, it enables artists to underline their feelings, to, in a way, explain why they wrote the song in the first place. Bon Jovi’s All About Loving You (lyrics here, video-less song here) is pretty descriptive and overall has very articulate lyrics. But the video really ties it together and makes it much more concrete.

And truth be told, I’m super glad that artists see music videos as much more than promotion tools and actually put effort and time and money into making meaningful videos. And while a lot of times, they involve them doing something gimmicky or unexpected, usually to boost the views, ultimately music videos occupy a spot somewhere there with short films and maybe even feature films of being an art-form for story telling. But the clever thing about all this is that, this by itself serves as a tool for music promotion. Meaningful videos, maybe not as much as Wrecking Ball and Justify My Love but still draw in a lot of audience. It gets people talking about the band, about their music videos, ultimately getting people to listen to more of their work.

And if we’re to go with the idea that music videos occupy similar spot in the art-form as short and feature films, we can pose even more questions about interpretation- some new, some shared ones from other art mediums. How do we interpret a music video? In our interpretation, do we get to take the song into account? The lyrics, the melody, the singing? If we don’t, does that mean a song and its music videos are two separate entities artificially tied in together (it certainly does feel that way for those “irrelevant” music videos)? Do we get to use information about the writer/director in our interpretation? What about the artist? What about information from other videos of the same artist? What about other songs? Songs of the same album? Of other albums?

While all these questions might not be that important, they’re definitely fun to think about. Don’t believe me? Remember the video of Sleep on the Floor? Now watch Angela:

When you left this town, with your windows down
And the wilderness inside
Let the exits pass, all the tar and glass
‘Til the road and sky align

The strangers in this town,
They raise you up just to cut you down
Oh Angela it’s a long time coming

And your Volvo lights lit up green and white
With the cities on the signs

But you held your course to some distant war
In the corners of your mind

From the second time around
The only love I ever found
Oh Angela it’s a long time coming

Home at last

Finally, watch Cleopatra:

I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
But I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans, yeah

And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet
And it hardened like my heart did when you left town
But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant
Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

Watch all of it together here.

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