A woman in a blue jumpsuit walks into a slowly illuminating dance studio carrying a rather large, clearly anachronistic boom box. As she puts the tape on play, she takes off her jumpsuit to reveal a pink leotard and the words time goes by so slowly play over and over as a crowd of various, dancing minorities flash on the screen, interspersed between an aged Madonna’s warm-up routine. The minorities, drawn from all of the locales where they are most readily found – for the Blacks, standing idly on the street, for the Asians, cooped up in an ethnic restaurant – go about their day, bumping this sick Madonna track, shucking and jiving in public while Madonna struggles to keep up in the security of her dated dance studio. The words Every little thing that you say or do, I’m hung up, hung up on you appear on the foreground of the song, repeated over and over. The mind almost unhears it, all of the body’s energy being poured into the eyes which hurriedly piece meaning from the strange music video.
I don’t necessarily like Madonna’s 2005 hit “Hung Up.” I especially don’t like the music video for its use
of people of color as simple props, thrown into the bunch not as a celebration of their individualism, but as a way of showing off the focus of the video: a rich, white, and bland Madonna. Nonetheless, there is little that distinguishes the minorities in “Hung Up” from those you find in Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” or Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Their existence is simple – to foil the white woman in the center of view, to draw attention to the sharpness of her costume design, the grace of her character, etc.
What fascinates me about “Hung Up”’s music video is the way that it seems to have little to do with the lyrics of the song. The song’s lyrics seem to tell the story of a woman growing tired of unrequited love from her lover. The constant refrain of the chorus, matched with the up-tempo melody, make the song ironically upbeat and optimistic, but it nonetheless is a story of love between two individuals. The music video does not reflect this at all. There isn’t really a love interest for Madonna, and there is no narrative to establish a connection between events, other than the very loose one which draws all the characters together at the end, for some reason, to play Dance Dance Revolution. The images we see in “Hung Up” carry with them intrinsic meaning individually, but together, the music video itself seems to make little sense.
How exactly are we supposed to understand pop music videos? An easy but insufficient answer: capitalism. Yes, music videos are essentially money-making devices which combine a variety of tactics towards encouraging listeners to better engage with a song through a combination of visual and audial stimuli. In many music videos, advertisements are added either subliminally or overtly, thus bolstering the claim that music videos operate as primarily capitalist texts. This answer is insufficient, however, because it doesn’t necessary tell us how the aesthetics and narrative of a pop music video encourage the sale of goods and services. How do dancing minorities help to sell “Hung Up” downloads on iTunes? How do chained CGI hyenas in Beyoncé’s “Run the World” contribute to the album sales for 4? Why is “Run the World” shot in a dystopian future which at the same time seems kind of old-timey? What do all of these images mean and how do we make sense of them?
Watching a music video is no different from watching a TV show, or a movie, or reading a book, or listening to a song. For a brief moment, we suspend external realities to immerse ourselves in a world fashioned to represent something else. Now, this is not to say that there are not music videos which reflect reality or which are not completely disconnected from their lyrical content. Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and Drake’s “Worst Behavior” make perfect sense as video companions to their songs. “We Found Love” chronicles an abusive and doomed relationship which stems from generally negative energy. Falling in love with mere representations of one another, the song’s refrain “we found love in a hopeless place” is nonetheless a constant reiteration which the narrator must repeat in order to justify and give herself the courage to leave a toxic relationship. The music video reflects this quite well; the relationship between Rihanna and Dudley O’Shaughnessy starts out great, but we can see from the opening monologue and the bits of discontent strewn about the opening verses that the relationship is not functioning well, and as the song progresses – and its own linear time, as well – the relationship deteriorates. On the other side, “Worst Behavior” lacks the narrative content of “We Found Love” insofar that it does not seem to tell a story. Nonetheless, it seems to function almost journalistically by bringing into the foreground a series of images of African-Americans living in a rather dilapidated Middle American town. The lyrics of the song, like “Cause man it’s a mission, tryna fight to the finish / just to see if I’m finished” are not a one-to-one comparison, but the emotionality of the song, that of an uncontrollable disdain and envy, is apparent in the flamboyant representations of African-American life throughout the music video. In the case of “Worst Behavior” the lyrics almost transform and mean something else. We are no longer inclined to view the song as Drake lamenting the ways that the hip-hop community has and continues to disregard his artistry, but to see the song as the ways that American culture continues to disregard the creativity of its Black community. I repeat; the video is not a narrative, but at some base level, there is a relationship between lyrics, music and image in a way which is completely absent from “Run the World” or “What You Waiting For?” or “Hung Up.”
Music videos, nonetheless, are different from television and film because the ways with which they engage with and bend reality is markedly different from that of other genres. The suspension of reality within a music video is far deeper and far less meaningful than that which occurs in a book or in a film. When Frank appears in a video tape of an alternate reality in the television show the Man in the High Castle, we are drawn to question the possibility of this happening. How is it possible that Frank is being shot to death in a video he never filmed, and how is it that Joe Blake is shooting him, despite the two of them having just met several days prior? The ways that reality is warped in the Man in the High Castle is bound to draw a response of confusion and bewilderment from an audience inclined to read television as representative of reality. We have not been keyed in at any point prior to this moment towards the end of the season that the story will not follow a “real” logical progression, and thus this moment is all-the-more confounding. Other forms of media give us hints that what we are seeing is perhaps illusory. David Fincher’s Fight Club bombards the viewer with subliminal images throughout the movie, and bends the perception of the unnamed narrator to accentuate his descent into a capitalism-induced psychosis. Although we are surprised at the end of the movie to find out that Tyler is not real, we are not so much shocked, for the narrator has revealed himself to be untrustworthy and mentally unbalanced.
Media which disengages with the “real” tends to walk us through this, tends to give us hints that we are watching is not a representation of anything that can possibly happen in our world.
They function as hypothetical fantasies, and thus occupy their own dimensions, are governed by their own logic and are entrenched within their own individual continuities. Music videos are no different, but the ways that we approach the ephemeral content of a music video is different from that of television or a film or a novel. When a person sits down to watch a music video, they are more or less expecting raw, uninhibited aesthetics, perhaps completely disengaged with any logical schema. They are not so much interested in finding “truth,” but entertainment. Pop music video aesthetics are therefore to titillate and to amuse, and not necessarily to teach. “Hung Up” is amusing because it is quite honestly ridiculous in its concept; why would these young, sprightly young dancers of color want to chock it up with a middle-aged, rusty-jointed Madonna? The video is in conversation with its own absurdity, and makes light of an otherwise puzzling situation through its riffing on its own strange humor. “Run the World” seeks to develop a feminist iconography of its own, featuring waves of military-inspired women of color dancing in sync before a tough-looking audience of male militants. The video is strange in its formulation and juxtaposing images – like that of the two hyenas or the clip when Beyoncé is for some reason upside-down, playing in a sandbox – but is ultimately interested in the end in sharing a political iconography of black female empowerment, even if it has very little to do with telling a story. At the same time, in the case of “Run the World,” it is perhaps unfair to look for a narrative, when the song itself does not tell a story, and is more of an anthem than a narrative.
I’m not trying to tell you to not watch music videos again, or that everything that we readily consume should follow some sort of narrative or logical progression. That wouldn’t be very “postmodern.” But what I am asking if that we begin to engage with music videos so as to better understand how they function as illicitly discursive texts – as in, what they tell us without us knowing. How do music videos spread information, or how do they seek to “embody the spirit” of a song’s “energy,” two terms which until recently have had no musicological significance. How is the melancholic lusting of “Champagne Coast” encapsulated in its vaporwave, Windows 95 video? How do the phone-sex workers in “Hotline Bling” riff on the lyrical images of a song about heartache and nostalgia? Perhaps it is because the music video is a form of postmodern cultural production that music video producers so thoroughly the oppressive conventions of film and television in favor of a methodology which favors raw visual aesthetics over complementary sound-sight couplings? I know I’m getting very theoretical – and jargon-y – here, but I suppose that’s the treatment that this sort of cultural production needs. Music videos are some of the most heavily watched and rewatched videos on Youtube. Their existence has sustained enterprises like MTV and BET for over 30 years, and they have in many ways become metonymic of music stardom – one doesn’t just drop a single anymore. It is accompanied by its own piece of promotional propaganda, a barrage of images which nonetheless entice us, entertain us, engulf and suspend us in a reality as false and fabricated as Madonna’s rickety performance in “Hung Up” and the chains attached to the hyenas’ collars in “Run the World.” You don’t just drop a mixtape anymore, but you couple it with a visual album composed of a continuity of videos which still have nothing to do with the song which plays in the background of the song.
If popular music exists to steal us away from this world for 3 or 4 minutes, the music video attempts to broaden the landscape of the world into which you are thrown, headfirst, without a parachute.