Apr 26, 2016

A Look at the Declining Appeal of Music Videos

Scene from Lemonade
This past weekend, HBO unleashed the latest project from Beyonce called Lemonade. With a shroud of mystery, nobody knew what to expect from this hour long special. Considering that she has been making it a priority in her late career to reinvent the music industry by releasing albums without notice, Lemonade continues her quest to be as mysterious as possible. Considering that this is mere months after an attention-grabbing "Formation" music video, it seems like she's set to make 2016 as lively as possible. However, her first four months of this year definitely raises a compelling question: why don't music videos hold the same impact that they once did? Yes, there are still a few in any given year that will get think pieces and serve as a zeitgeist point for the period. However, it still is a far cry from what things used to be.
At their core, music videos are the intersection of pure art and crass marketing. In a lot of cases, the main goal of the visuals is to get you to buy the album or, at very least, talk about the musician in question. There are those who have made excellent careers out of making striking pictures that get the world talking. In the past 15 years, many could turn to the likes of Rihanna, The White Stripes, OKGo, and even Lady GaGa for videos so distinctive that they burrow into your subconscious. In the modern era, it feels like it should be an opportune time to be banking on music videos. With the ever expanding value of YouTube and the alleged shrinking of audience's attention spans, the three minute videos should be the resource for pure stimulation. 
This isn't to say that the music video is dead. After all, MTV still holds the Music Video Awards annually. Of course, those have evolved more into spectacles than recognition of one's work. There are also many who have attempted to turn the music video into its own narrative art form, turning songs into their own 20-or-so minute stories. In a lot of ways, the music video culture remains just as compelling as an art form, with just as much of it being nonsensical and disposable as always. Without judging quality of music, there are those who continue to provoke through the picture successfully. However, it does feel like the art form of it being culturally relevant has dwindled over time - especially since YouTube and the over-sharing generation should make certain things more prevalent.
It could just be that culture is now so expansive and hard to find much that unites internet conversation, but one must ask what music videos of the past five years holds any lasting impact? This isn't a question of quality, but more how much people will turn back to the videos merely to watch the images unveil before their eyes. With millions of views credited to many of these videos, one must wonder if the subsequent conversations have any lasting impact. Sure, there's something to having something visceral and in the moment. However, one could turn to any of the aforementioned artists and remember those videos with a certain clarity. While it still remains a trend, the choice to evolve from music video director to movie director isn't even as prevalent as it used to be.
If this seems like a crass and oversimplifying judgment, let me just point out that I understand the shift in culture. The era of MTV and Total Request Live servicing as the home base for artists presenting something cool and exciting are largely over. It lasted a good 25 years before YouTube came along and found ways to make them on the fly and release them with less acclaim. The access nowadays is so incredibly easy that one could easy post an embedded video into their post. That may be one of the reasons why music videos aren't as substantial. However, there's still something to seeing filmmakers like Spike Jonze in their prime making music videos like Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice" or The Beastie Boys' "Sabotage." Those are the type of career-defining videos that most musicians would want nowadays. Sure, Lady GaGa and OKGo have them, but can you recall any video of note from the current Top 40 radio?
While this isn't meant to be a shill for Beyonce and Lemonade, I think that it reflects in its purest sense the disparaging problem with modern music video culture. Be honest. Before "Formation," when was the last time that a music video provoked audiences to such a loud cry that even the news reported on its backlash? True, it could just be that Beyonce's subject matter has become more striking - addressing police brutality and black identity. However, there are dozens of seasoned vets in the music industry not pushing buttons quite like she has in recent years. Whereas most people are fine shooting generic music videos, there's something to "Formation" that got under people's skins and convinced Beyonce to go all out for Lemonade, which promised to be even more of a statement.
To a large extent, Beyonce is reflecting what music video culture could be in 2016. Instead of just making it into a disposable art form on YouTube, she is choosing to use it to make statements and raise intrigue through compelling marketing techniques. Lemonade may only be an hour long, but the conversation has lasted for days and only builds on "Formation." While most people likely wouldn't be able to recall a song if it was just released on the radio, she found a way to make music important by accompanying them with provocative images that challenge societal norms. 
I'm not saying that all music videos must have a deeper calling. I'm more suggesting that there has to be more to the art form than making something that gets immediate attention, then loses it over time. Maybe Beyonce's winning streak will die by June, but for now she continues to reflect a certain impact that she can make through music in ways that are sort of inspiring. In a time where songs come and go, Beyonce still manages to be a recognizable force. She may never go away, but hopefully the one thing that she will convince people to do is make music videos that matter. I don't know if Lemonade will have a lasting impact, but its release strategy will at least be a footnote of some sort that will for sure be ripped off by someone at some point. Otherwise, she is helping to make music videos relevant again, and that's no simple task.

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