Kanye’s recently leaked shit pile is evidence enough that the music video is a floundering form. At least I think it is – I never really see one anymore unless I’m listening to a song on YouTube.
Once a major promotional tool, music videos have joined album cover art among the relics of an old advertising paradigm, one supplanted by social media campaigns, cross-promotions, and a host of targeted ads issuing unwelcome prescriptions of what you will like. MTV hasn't shown music videos in ages; they don’t have to because nobody cares.
The few I have seen lately hearken back to the infancy of the genre: artist front and center, playacting a performance, titillating a bit in the process — add in a few camera gimmicks and that’s a wrap. They're reminiscent of everything bad about Blondie’s abysmal Heart of Glass video: Debbie Harry, stunning as usual, tightly hissing the words of the song as if she were fighting TMJ (très punk!) Awkward white girl dancing ensues, there are a few cut shots of the band acting silly (Blondie is a band!) and Fin. That was 1979. It’s now 2013, and Yeesus Christ, if Kanye’s Black Skinhead effort is any indication, we've come full circle; we've regressed.
Contrast that with the pinnacle period of the art. Madonna’s Deeper and Deeper is a seminal example of how a music video can and should move. If you've never seen it, take a moment to watch; if you've seen it before, watch again.
Never have six minutes of film so perfectly portrayed the ecstatic emptiness of club life. The familiar faces met with feigned friendliness, bumping between the strangers you know and those you never will, trying to make a connection while struggling to look connected at all times. It succinctly captures the complete narrative arc: a reserved, almost reluctant journey to the club, an unsteady entrance, a manic desire to feel the false euphoria, and the broken, unfulfilled end – the denouement of another night’s longings floating off into the darkness, just as out of reach as the bonds you’d hoped to create.
The video is a tour de force juxtaposing glamour and grit; blending seamlessly between color and monochrome it distills diverse themes — unrequited affection, promiscuity, isolation, love – into beautifully shot cinematic frames. Completely self-aware, it takes a meta shot at the pretense of the avant-garde while gracefully incorporating subtle allusions to touchstones such as Gatsby and Studio 54. Madonna can’t carry a feature film, but this sublime portrait of the disillusioned schizophrenia that is so many nights out should have won an Academy Award – even if they had to create a category just to honor the damned thing.
Of course, the video for Deeper and Deeper was marketing – all videos in that era of physical album sales were. But unlike today’s examples, it was marketing in service of a higher creation: it enhanced song, pushing it beyond radio refrain into total performance. It was marketing as craft and self-promotion as art – a métier I sorely miss far more than the videos themselves.
Inspired by this exchange: Black Skinhead