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Video and the radio star, now both dead

By Danielle Gewurz

Section: Arts

March 5, 2010

Since MTV pioneered the broadcasting of music videos with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the medium has seen a few excellent highlights. The White Stripes used Legos. Prison inmates and Jennifer Garner have both performed the choreography from “Thriller.” There’s all those Michel Gondry videos, Aphex Twin weirdness and tons more examples of how a successful video is both part of and wholly separate from the track that accompanies it.

But in the last decade or so, music videos have fallen by the wayside. If you’ll permit me to wildly over-generalize, videos substitute stock shots and slick production values for any real effort or thought.

Videos have become increasingly indistinguishable from each other. Less popular artists rarely make videos anymore; it’s not a worthwhile investment for labels to make videos that have minimal chances of ever being aired.

My first major annoyance with music videos is the overwhelming increase in product placement in music videos. The close-ups of artists using cell phones or laptops, putting on makeup, drinking particular beverages and especially particular brands of vodka, have become increasingly noticeable. If you watch a block of three or four videos it’ll start to jump out at you.

Though product placement has also, of course, become commonplace on regular television, it is somewhat absurd that music videos, designed to be promotional tools for artists, have instead become promotional tools for other, completely unrelated items. Perhaps it’s a sign that music videos have outlived their usefulness. Regardless, it’s off-putting.

What’s more annoying, though, is the unrelenting streams of objectification that are virtually mandatory. Regardless of the genre, it has become standard to feature scantily clad female artists or dancers, focusing extensively on specific parts of their bodies rather than the woman as a whole.

The ridiculous thing is that it doesn’t matter who the artist is; male artists are surrounded by dozens of women with seemingly no agency, and female artists are not only surrounded by other women, but they themselves are reduced to nothing more than objects. There are rarely multiple male background dancers, and even when present, they are never focused on so heavily or wearing so little as female background dancers.

Finally, the lack of any narrative in most videos makes videos somewhat pointless to watch. Not that I don’t appreciate pretty visuals as much as the next person—I’m equally distracted by shiny things. Performance videos are a classic standby, but they don’t tend to be interesting enough for a full three minutes. So, the choice remains to either impose a narrative in the video that has little to do with the song, or act out the song in some way.

This has resulted in pretty much only two main plotlines for videos that even try to have a plot. The first is a woman who doesn’t like her crush’s choice in girlfriend, and said girlfriend may also be played by the artist—see Avril Lavigne and Taylor Swift. The second, for which the word plot only loosely applies, is that the artist or band is playing at a party of some kind, possibly in someone’s house, where a group of total rebels, who invariably look like models, will sing along.

Major-label artist videos have descended into the same vague, non-narrative sheen. Watching multiple pop videos, rock videos or rap videos in a row has a sort of cumulative pummeling effect that renders the viewer incoherent and incapable of distinguishing one from another. Perhaps that’s not a problem, though, because today there’s nowhere on television where you can watch multiple videos in a row.

Come to think of it, MTV’s “Total Request Live” was probably the beginning of the end of music videos. TRL made a habit of gradually reducing the amount of footage they actually showed from each video until you saw 30 seconds or less. And then I graduated middle school and never went back to TRL, so I can’t really be sure what happened after that. But I doubt it ever changed. At that point, it no longer mattered if a video was interesting enough to watch all the way through, because no one really got the chance to do so. Then MTV2 became just as useless as MTV, and it was clear that if video killed the radio star, reality stars killed the music video.

Recent videos by bands like Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend—even Lady Gaga—have been both clever and interesting, but it doesn’t change the fact that overwhelmingly music videos lack sway over audiences. It seems almost antiquated to continue to produce revenue losses, and though there’s always been strains of misogyny and commercialism in music videos, the trends have certainly worsened.

So while I may be the typical music industry doomsayer, keep in mind that most of those videos you enjoyed are probably at least five years old. After all, the classic A-Ha “Take On Me” video is never not awesome.

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